Dinner for One, also known as The 90th Birthday, or by its corresponding German title, Der 90. Geburtstag, is a comedy sketch written by British author Lauri Wylie for the theatre in the 1920s. German television station Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) recorded a performance of the piece in 1963, in its original English language. This short comical play subsequently went on to become the most frequently repeated TV programme ever (according to the Guinness Book of Records, 1988-1995 eds.; later editions no longer have the category).
The 18 minute single take black-and-white 1963 TV recording featuring British comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden has become an integral component of the New Year's Eve schedule of several German television stations, Danish, and Swedish national television, a December 23 staple on Norwegian national television, and a cult television classic in Finland, Faroe Islands and Austria; on New Year's Eve 2003 alone, the sketch was broadcast 19 times (on various channels). As of 2005, the sketch has been repeated more than 230 times. It is famous in other countries as well — including German-speaking Switzerland and South Africa. It is a New Year's Eve staple in Australia on the SBS network.
In 2003 the Danish TV producer Paul Anthony Sørensen produced and directed an international documentary about the sketch. In the documentary we meet the relatives of Freddie Frinton (the manservant James) and May Warden (Miss Sophie) and get to know the story behind the sketch. The documentary was nominated for the Rose d'Or 2004.
Story lineThe sketch presents the 90th birthday of elderly upper-class Englishwoman Miss Sophie, who hosts a dinner every year for her close friends Mr Pommeroy, Mr Winterbottom, Sir Toby, and Admiral von Schneider to celebrate the occasion. (Note that the plot has nothing to do with New Year's Eve, as is often incorrectly stated. There is a "Happy new year" toast, but this is purely a reference to Miss Sophie's anniversary.) The problem is that given Miss Sophie's considerable age, she has outlived all of her friends, and so her equally aged manservant James makes his way around the table, impersonating each of the guests in turn. Miss Sophie decides on appropriate drinks to accompany the menu of the evening, consisting of Mulligatawny soup (Miss Sophie orders dry sherry), North Sea haddock (with white wine), chicken (with champagne), and fruit for dessert (with port) served by James, and so he finds himself raising (and emptying) his glass four times per course. That takes its toll, increasingly noticeable in James' growing difficulty in pouring the drinks, telling wine glasses from vases of flowers, and refraining from bursting into song. Even before the alcohol begins to exert its influence, he has trouble avoiding the head of a tiger skin lying on the floor between the dinner table and the buffet.
The crucial exchange during every course is:
James: The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Miss Sophie: The same procedure as every year, James!
After the dinner, Miss Sophie indicates to a very drunk James that she wishes to retire to bed, to which James responds:
James: By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Miss Sophie (delightedly): The same procedure as every year, James!
James: Well, I'll do my very best!
Origin of the sketch
Wylie is said to have written the sketch in the 1920s. Some sources indicate that Frinton performed Dinner for One on stage with Warden on Britain's seaside piers as early as 1945, paying royalties for performing it to Wylie until buying the rights in the early 1950s. However the sketch was also staged elsewhere, for example in 1953 in John Murray Anderson's Almanac (the show that also featured Harry Belafonte in the early days of his career) at Imperial Theatre with Hermione Gingold playing Miss Sophie, Billy DeWolfe as the butler, and apparently featuring four dead friends.
In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase discovered Dinner for One in Blackpool. The sketch was staged in Frankenfeld's live show shortly thereafter, and recorded on July 8, 1963 at the Theater am Besenbinderhof, Hamburg in front of a live audience. It was one of the first video tape recordings made by German television. The introductory theme was composed by Lew Pollack and recorded by the Mantovani orchestra. According to the NDR, Frinton and Warden were paid DM 4,150. The show was re-run occasionally until it gained its fixed spot on New Year's Eve in 1972.
International broadcastsIt is a curiosity that this sketch has become a tradition in Germany, where up to half the population may see it every year, but it is almost totally unknown in Britain. It is also shown on New Year’s Eve in many other mainland European countries, particularly Nordic countries, and also screens on SBS in Australia. In Norway, however, it is shown every year on the evening of December 23. It is known as far away as South Africa where it is also broadcast on New Year's Eve. In Sweden, the show was put on hold for a period of six years, deemed "unsuitable" because of James' heavy drinking. However, the TV network then relented to popular demand and brought it back. In 2006 the Danish television network, DR, decided not to broadcast the sketch. However, the network received so many complaints, that they had to show it the next New Year's Eve.
Although the sketch is most popular in non-English speaking countries, it is typically shown in the original English without dubbing or subtitles. It is easy to understand with even the most basic knowledge of English, which helps explain this point. The performance remains practically unknown to the English speaking world. Many British people are surprised when encountering fans' ability to quote dialogue, they themselves, however, seemingly rarely share in the enthusiasm. Although a small clip was broadcast in an edition of QI in January 2010, it has not been broadcast in its entirety on British TV for at least 30 years.
Different versionsThe NDR television channel recorded several versions in 1963. Most well-known is the 18 minute version of the sketch traditionally shown in Germany. It has an introduction in German language by narrator Heinz Piper and an audience laughing in the background. Every year, there are normally about 15 rebroadcasts of the show on all of Germany's public regional stations like MDR, WDR, NDR or BR and others.
Danish TV shows a recording made by NDR on the same stage where no audience is heard.
A third, 11 minute version was recorded by the Swiss television.
In 1999, the NDR released a post-processed coloured version.
In Denmark, a parody of the sketch was filmed with the subtitle "The 80th Birthday" in which Miss Sophie's friends are still at the table (that the last of Miss Sophie's friends actually died 25 years ago is only known to those who have seen the NDR-version, where this is mentioned in the intro). Other versions include one in Low German, various re-enactments or parodies by different comedians, and a version featuring the German puppet character Bernd das Brot (Bernd the Bread).
In 2008 on the occasion of the 60th birthday of German comedian Otto Waalkes RTL Television showed a parody of the sketch with Otto as "Miss Otti" and departed German comedians as her guests whom the butler (Ralf Schmitz) then impersonated. Whether Miss Otti's ordering of the wine before the fish was an accident or planned is a matter of debate but it brought the house down...
In August 2010, there was a stage production at the Hill Street theatre, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh festival. Directed by David Lavender, it starred Chris Cresswell as James and Miriam King as Miss Sophie.
Catch phrase: “Same procedure as every year”The line “Same procedure as every year” has become a very popular catchphrase in Germany, according to Tim Gruhl, the programme editor at the Hamburg-based television Channel NDR. The phrase “has made its way into everyday vocabulary, and even crops up in newspaper headlines and advertisements.”
German narrator Heinz Piper originally made a grammatical mistake in his introduction to the 18 minute version: He misquoted Warden’s line “Same procedure as every year” as “Same procedure than every year”. While the mistake appears to have gone unnoticed initially, it later prompted annual protest letters to the NDR, most notably from German teachers of English. The NDR eventually responded by editing the recording slightly, substituting a small bit of its audio track with audio recorded during one of the rehearsals. Thus, in 1988, the error had been edited out and Piper could be heard to correctly say “Same procedure as every year”. This in turn annoyed some purists who would rather respect the original.
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