The Mystery of Dinner for One

How an obscure British skit has become Germany’s most popular New Year’s tradition.

As the clock ticks toward midnight each Dec. 31, Americans gather around the tube to watch Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (now starring Ryan Seacrest). The most-popular New Year’s television program in Germany, by contrast, doesn’t feature the world’s oldest teenager or a dropping ball. In 2005, Jude Stewart explained why Germans love to ring in the New Year with an 11-minute British comedy skit. Her essay is reprinted below.

“The same procedure as every year, James.”

Every New Year’s Eve, half of all Germans plunk down in front of their televisions to watch a 1963 English comedy sketch called Dinner for One. Walk into any bar in Bavaria and shout the film’s refrain: “The same procedure as last year, madam?” The whole crowd will shout back in automatic, if stilted, English: “The same procedure as every year, James.” Even though Dinner for One is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most frequently repeated TV program ever, it has never been aired in the United Kingdom or the United States, and most of the English-speaking world is ignorant of its existence. When Der Spiegel probed the mystery last New Year’s, it found that the BBC had not only never contemplated broadcasting this veddy British nugget in the United Kingdom, the BBC’s spokesperson had never even heard of it.

Dinner for One, also known as Der 90 Geburtstag (The 90th Birthday), has rattled around the cabaret circuit for decades. Written by British author Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, it presents a morbidly funny story in miniature—(just 11 minutes on TV): Elderly Miss Sophie throws her birthday party every year, setting the table for her friends Sir Toby, Mr. Pommeroy, Mr. Winterbottom, and Adm. von Schneider, while conveniently ignoring the fact that they’ve all been dead for a quarter-century. (You can watch all of Dinner for One here or read the English script here.) Her butler James manfully takes up the slack by playacting all of them. He serves both drinks and food while quaffing toasts on behalf of each “guest,” a bevy of soused British noblemen and von Schneider, who toasts Miss Sophie with a heel-click and a throaty “Skål!” (Watch a sample of Mr. Winterbottom’s patois here.) James waddles to and fro, trips repeatedly over the head of a tiger-pelt rug, declaims each guest’s pleasantries boozily, spray-fires the table with mispoured drinks, and downs a little water from a flower vase. Each course begins with the signature refrain: “The same procedure as last year, madam?” “The same procedure as every year, James.” The sketch ends with James’ final “procedure”: bedding the old lady himself.

In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld stumbled on Dinner for One in Blackpool’s seaside circuit. Frankenfeld was so charmed that he invited actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden to perform the sketch on his live TV show Guten Abend, Peter Frankenfeld. The now-classic black-and-white recording dates from a 1963 live performance in Hamburg’s Theater am Besenbinderhof. (So deep runs the love for this broadcast that last year Frankfurter Rundschau interviewed a woman whose piercing laugh from the sidelines has achieved its own cult status.) Audiences clamored for repeats, and the skit fit nicely as a time-filler between larger broadcasts, so the German network Norddeutscher Rundfunk and its affiliates ran the snippet repeatedly in the 1960s, even reaching audiences behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. The skit settled into its current New Year’s Eve slot in 1972.

The show’s popularity spread to Scandinavia, where it is typically watched on December 23, as well as Switzerland, Austria, South Africa, Australia, and Latvia. The show has been broadcast more than 230 times. You can watch it dubbed in Plattdeutsch, a northern German dialect (with or without a German introduction), ponder its scholarly depths in a Latin translation, take in live Dinner for One supper theater, cook up Miss Sophie’s traditional meal, or just drink briskly along with the actors, and the rest of northern Europe. There are many parodies as well: My favorite is the childrens’ public TV station KI.KA’s Dinner für Brot, featuring a puppet shaped like a roll of bread as James.

But why? How did a sliver of British humor come to dominate another culture’s holidays—with apparently no connective thread back to its source? First, the slapstick of Dinner for One transcends the language barrier. Second, it offers a slight thrill of the verboten: After all, it features a very crazy old lady, a bevy of lecherous male friends, a big stench of post-WWII death, a hell of a lot of drinking, and senior-citizen sex. A third notion, floated by Der Spiegel and the  Guardian alike last year, is that the film plays to Germans’ worst idea of the British upper class: dotty, pigheadedly traditional, forever marinated in booze despite titles. The BBC counters with the more politic theory that Dinner for One “has become synonymous with British humor, on a par with Mr. Bean.” British TV executives see it as fit only for foreigners, or they would rush to broadcast it themselves. Why Germany finds it so funny and the British don’t is, according to Der Spiegel’s Sebastian Knauer, “one of the last unsolved questions of European integration.”

But the biggest reason for Dinner for One’s popularity, I suspect, is the magic of repetition. The skit is mildly funny, sure, but much more important is that it has the mysterious quality of something that could get very funny after years of drunken viewing. The script itself, so laden with repetition, lodges in the brain and accretes in-jokes easily. (Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Showgirls, which have achieved bad-is-good popularity through repetition, Dinner for One has a bad little kernel of a story and a crass creepiness.) And in a modern Germany many feel is teetering into economic free fall, a comfortable old-time ritual has an almost religious attraction.

Best of all, Dinner for One is a perfect foundation for a tidy drinking game in which you down four different liquors in 11 minutes, “the same procedure as every year.” What more fitting way to ring in the New Year?