A classic TV sketch of a senile British woman and her drunk butler at her 90th birthday party thrills millions of Germans every New Year's Eve.
Miss Sophie and butler, James have been regaling German audiences for years
Millions of Germans and other continental Europeans will settle down in front of their TV sets on New Year's Eve for what has become an annual ritual -- the airing of an aged British comedy sketch starring a long-dead music-hall comedy called "Dinner for One."
The 15-minute sketch, acted by Freddie Frinton and May Warden, will also be televised by every other major regional public-TV channel in Germany and by a scattering of commercial networks.
The black-and-white British slapstick sketch, totally unknown in the English-speaking world, has become the highest-rated TV show in German history, and has spawned fan clubs and a cult following of viewers who stage parties to recreate the sketch at home.
In a nation not exactly known for its ribaldry and thigh-slapping humor, the New Year's Eve showing of "Dinner for One" never fails to bring down the house. There are viewers who have memorized every gesture, every line of the English-only sketch.
The mere mention of the tag-line, "same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie" will break the ice with the sternest of stern-faced Germans. Mention that line, regardless of the situation, and be prepared for the German to reply with, "Same procedure as every year, James," and then collapse into hysterical laughter.
Fireworks are an annual German tradition
It is a phenomenon that has become ritualized into tradition. "The Dinner for One" sketch was originally performed in the 1920s in British music halls.
In the early 1960s, a German television producer had caught the stage act in Blackpool and invited Frinton to fly back to Hamburg with him to tape the sketch for a one-time broadcast in 1963.
Studio employees and in-house secretaries served as the live audience for the sketch about a butler who gets riotously drunk while serving food and drinks to his employer, Miss Sophie, and her guests on her 90th birthday.
The running joke is that she sits alone at the table because she has outlived all her male guests who were her former lovers. Butler James assumes the role of each 'guest' in order to toast Miss Sophie with champagne, wine, port and so on throughout the meal. Before each toast, he asks plaintively: "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie" to which she responds, "the same procedure as every year, James."
The "same procedure" line is repeated one final time after dinner as butler James escorts Miss Sophie upstairs to bed, with Frinton leering knowingly at the audience and affirming, "I'll do me very best!"
The highest ratings
The sketch was used as a New Year's Eve filler on NDR television in Hamburg in the early 1970s and it quickly became a regular part of German New Year's Eve celebrations.
Butler James has wowed German viewers since 1963
Over the years somehow, it has become a cult classic in Germany -- to the extent that it is shown on dozens of regional channels at some point over New Year and NDR shows it six or seven times during New Year's Eve.
"It usually has the highest rating of any program shown during the year," says Jürgen Meier-Beer, NDR's head of entertainment. "We have an average market share in our area of 8 percent. 'Dinner for One' gets us up to 20 to 30 percent every time. We reckon that one in every two viewers in our area will watch it at some point on New Year's Eve."
In recent years, it has also been shown in Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and other countries.
Ironically, Frinton died long before his sketch made him a household name across central Europe.
Getting in on the joke
Many Germans are shocked to learn that the rest of the world is ignorant of this pearl of British humor.
English-speaking visitors to Germany are invariably flummoxed by continual references to this obscure sketch. In a bid to make casual conversation, a German might ask, "what do you think of 'Dinner for One'?"
"'Dinner for One' what," is often the reply.
"You know -- 'Dinner for One' -- 'James, Miss Sophie, same procedure as every year?'" And then they break into an uncontrolled fit of giggles.
A silly moment of merriment
Also, Germans are amazed that few people in Britain under the age of 50 know who Frinton was. In fact, Frinton was a master at playing comic drunks and had a huge following on British television in the 1950s.
He was a bit past his prime when he taped the German version of his popular sketch. Viewed for the first time, the sketch seems dated and stale, an impression not helped by the fact that it was shot in black and white, and recorded on videotape.
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But what Germans love about "Dinner for One" is the fact that it is a silly moment of merriment that has become enshrined in the nation's psyche. People remember seeing it when they were young and with people who are no longer present, and they remember New Year's Eves gone by.
The sketch, of course, improves from repeated viewing, not unlike the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And on New Year's Eve, of course, many viewers have been raising their glasses in toasts all evening already and are as smashed as Frinton's character in the sketch. That makes it easy for millions to slur the lines right along with the inebriated butler.
Never shown in Britain
What many people in Germany don't realize is that the sketch has never been shown in either Britain or the US, though it has had a few showings on Australian cable TV.
But then, there are those German-language figures who are unknown in Germany. When a German asks what you think of "Dinner for One," one can respond by asking what they think of "The Sound of Music."
Then the shoe will be on the other foot. One can even launch into a rendition of the song, "Edelweiss." One's new German friends will look at you in utter bafflement as though you're from another planet.