GERMANS HAVE a rather peculiar New Year’s Eve tradition. Everybody — yes, really, everybody — gathers around the TV to watch “Dinner for One,” a short black-and-white comedy, in English, about an aristocrat and her butler.
Given the film’s astounding popularity, Germans assume that “Dinner for One” is a classic of British cinema, that it must be a huge hit elsewhere in the world — and they feel lucky to be in on the big English joke. It can be a terrible blow to the average German’s weltanschauung when he finds out that the English-speaking world is largely unaware of this pearl of British comedy.
So what exactly is “Dinner for One,” and why does it have such a hold on the German imagination? The story is disarmingly simple. The dotty Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday in what she likes to imagine is the presence of her old pals. The dinner guests, though, are all long dead, so her obliging butler, James, pretends to be each of them. He mimics their voices and drinks each of their toasts in turn, getting steadily more smashed as the evening proceeds.
James, played by Freddie Frinton, is hardly Mr. Stiff-Upper-Lip. He’s a bit of an old codger and cavorts across the screen in convincing slapstick manner, increasingly slurring his words and fighting with a tendency to trip over a tiger skin rug. As each course — and round of drinks — commences, the butler queries: “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” To which the rejoinder is, “The same procedure as every year, James.”
The punch line of the whole skit — and delicate readers may want to stop here — is that when the old dear heads off to bed, the manservant pops the same question. And is met with a parallel — this time, of course, quite saucy — reply.
German viewers erupt into convulsions of laughter even though they’ve seen it a million times before. Like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the sketch improves with repeated viewing. And on New Year’s Eve, of course, everyone is already a bit pickled and needs very little encouragement to recite the lines right along with the characters.
Of course, what most of these mirthful Germans fail to realize is that the film has never been televised, not once, in either Britain or the United States (though it has had a few showings on Australian cable TV). Yet it is a huge hit, if not a national treasure, in Germany and has also tickled the fancies of Austrians, Scandinavians and Estonians.
The attraction? Perhaps the skit simply fits into a kind of prejudice about the English upper class as being daft, drunk and debauched. Or maybe it allows those with only rudimentary English skills to join in the fun of that famous British humor.
The two “stars” of the film, Freddie Frinton and May Warden, were British entertainers who had been performing this sketch at seaside resorts for years. It was written in the 1920s and Frinton bought the rights in the 1950s. During one performance in Brighton in 1963, German TV presenter Peter Frankenfeld happened to be in the audience and liked the sketch so much he invited Frinton and Warden to perform on his show. It was such a roaring success that the sketch was then performed in front of a live audience in Hamburg and filmed by the local station NDR — and it is this version that is shown on German screens to this day.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Times