Dinner for One: The Little-Known British Comedy Famous in Germany | History Hit

Dinner for One: The Little-Known British Comedy Famous in Germany

Teet Ottin

28 Dec 2022
'Dinner For One', with May Warden (left) and Freddie Frinton (right)
Image Credit: Fair use, Norddeutscher Rundfunk

Every year, on the last day of December, a black and white sketch is shown across Germany. The highly popular Dinner for One or Der 90. Geburtstag in German, has been broadcast since 1963, delighting viewers for over half a century. But the story of this cult classic is an unusual one – the original play and actors originated from the United Kingdom, yet almost nobody in Britain has heard of it.

So how did a British sketch make it big not only in Germany but across the continent? Explore the story of this classic New Years Eve film and maybe you will want to join this most unusual of dinners.

The backstory

The story begins with Lauri Wylie, a British actor and author, who in 1934, debuted his newest play Dinner for One in London. The slapstick comedy would find great success across British music halls, becoming the biggest hit of his otherwise floundering career. The play would be brought back to the London stage in 1948 and to Broadway in 1953.

The second main character of the tale is Peter Frankenfeld, one of the most influential producers of post-war West Germany. Looking for a play for his home market, he stumbled across Dinner for One, performed by Freddie Frinton in a comedy club in Blackpool. Frankenfeld immediately invited Frinton to Germany to film the sketch in front of a live audience in Hamburg in 1963.

Whilst initially replayed only sporadically on German television, in 1972 the film was used as a New Year’s Eve filler on NDR, the public television station in Hamburg. After this, it rapidly became a regular part of German New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Unlike many Christmas traditions, there’s very little in the way of New Years traditions we still do today that have medieval origins.
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The plot

The film begins with an introduction, explaining the basic premise of the whole film. Miss Sophie, played by May Warden, is hosting her 90th Birthday dinner and invited her four dearest friends: Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pomeroy, and Mr. Winterbottom. The slight problem is that she has outlived them all, asking her Butler James, played by Freddie Frinton, to impersonate all of her former friends.

Before serving each course James asks Miss Sophie ‘The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?’ to which she replies ‘The same procedure as every year, James’. Throughout the evening he has to serve all of the drinks chosen by Miss Sophie to the imaginary guest, while slipping into the role of her past friends. All of the sherry, white wine, champagne and port wine causes the butler to become increasingly drunk.

By the end Miss Sophie utters an inviting ‘I think I’ll retire’ to which both repeat their exchange concerning the ‘same procedure’. The butler turns to the camera, with a slight grin and says ‘Well, I’ll do my very best’, before both disappear upstairs.

Freddie Frinton as the butler

Image Credit: Fair use, Norddeutscher Rundfunk

Popularity across Europe

The sketch has remained hugely popular in Germany, where it is now seen as a New Years Eve tradition. Some die hard fans even copy Miss Sophie’s meal, though one can hope fans don’t replicate James’ alcohol consumption.

But Dinner for One‘s appeal has also travelled to other European countries, with places like Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Denmark and Norway broadcasting it every year. The short 18 minute long movie has also managed to delight audiences in Australia and South Africa, though it is less popular there than in Europe. Even though it is most popular in non English speaking countries, the sketch is shown in its original language without any subtitles.

The slap-stick nature of the sketch and the characters are sometimes seen as a representation of British society, with people divided by class and the establishment consisting of eccentric and quirky characters who are still clinging onto the past.

So why has nobody heard of it in the United Kingdom? The easy answer is that until 2018 it wasn’t broadcast across the English Channel. It is yet to be seen if Dinner for One will amass the same cult following in Britain as it has on the continent.

Teet Ottin