Millions of Germans 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 ancient British comedy sketch starring a long-dead, music-hall comedian.
Freddie Frinton, left, and May Warden, in "Dinner For One," beloved by the Germans and, well, no one else.
This year is the 45th anniversary of the broadcast, which has become as much a part of New Year's Eve for Germans as singing "Auld Lang Syne" is in English-speaking countries. The 15-minute sketch, acted by Freddie Frinton and May Warden, this year will be televised by every major regional public TV channel in Germany and by a scattering of commercial networks as well.
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 stern-faced German to reply with, "Same procedure as EVERY year, James," and then watch the Germans collapse into hysterical laughter.
It is a phenomenon that has become ritualized into tradition. The "Dinner For One" sketch was originally performed in the 1920s in the British music halls. This 15-minute TV adaptation is performed by 1950s British TV comedian Freddie Frinton and his longtime on-stage partner May Warden.
Butler James gets roaring drunk in the sketch
In the early 1960s, a German television producer had caught the stage act at Blackpool and invited Frinton to fly back to Hamburg with him to tape the sketch for 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 Miss Sophie is sitting all alone at a table because she has outlived all her male guests -- who apparently 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" gag-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!"
Gets better with time
Who needs fireworks when you've got "Dinner For One"?
After the first broadcast in 1963, the videotape was stored away for about a decade. Then in the early 1970s, the sketch was used as a New Year's Eve filler on NDR television in Hamburg and proved to be a huge hit. NDR repeated it the next year, and soon other public broadcasters linked up with NDR to air the show as well.
It quickly became a regular part of the German New Year's Eve celebrations and over the years it has become a cult classic, often having the highest rating of any program shown during the year.
The sketch improves from repeated viewing, not unlike the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and other cult classics.
What many people in Germany don't realize is that the sketch has never -- not once -- been shown in either Britain or the United States, although it has had a few showings on Australian cable TV.