This year, millions of Germans will take part in a New Year's Eve ritual - watching a black-and-white English-language television sketch called "Dinner for One, or the 90th Birthday" that was recorded 50 years ago. Every year it is screened, usually several times, by most of Germany's regional public TV channels. Despite being in English, it is broadcast without subtitles.
The 18-minute slapstick sketch, acted by Freddie Frinton and May Warden, has become the highest-rated TV show in German history, and holds the Guinness world record for the most repeated television program ever. Its cultural impact is so great that Chancellor Angela Merkel made reference to its upcoming 50th anniversary in her New Year's address.
The skit has been parodied literally thousands of times. Last year, satirist Udo Eling made a film entitled "Euros for No One" that featured the faces of Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy superimposed on the original actors' bodies. Countless other parodies can be seen online, such as a reenactment using Lego bricks.
Written by author Lauri Wylie in the 1920s," Dinner for One" was originally performed in British music halls. Actor Freddie Frinton began to play James in 1954, and shortly thereafter May Warden took over the role of Miss Sophie, previously portrayed by her daughter Audrey.
In the early 1960s, German television producer Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase saw "Dinner for One" in Blackpool and invited Frinton and Warden to fly back to Hamburg to record the sketch, using the relatively new technology of videotape, 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 and her imaginary guests on her 90th birthday.
The running joke is that Sophie sits alone at the table because she has outlived all her male guests, who were her former lovers; the last was buried 25 years earlier. Butler James assumes the role of each "guest" 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 replies, "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 my very best!"
An accidental New Year's tradition
In its first decade, the sketch was replayed only sporadically on German television. It was used as a New Year's Eve filler on the public television station NDR in Hamburg in 1972 and it quickly became a regular part of German New Year's Eve celebrations. The plot of the sketch has nothing to do with New Year's Eve.
Over the years, it became 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, including a colorized version.
NDR recorded several different versions of the sketch, but the best-known is the 18-minute version, shot in a single take, with an introduction, or explanation, in German by announcer Heinz Piper. Swiss television invited Frinton and Warden to record its own, shorter, version of the sketch, which has also been broadcast for years on New Year's Eve. The popularity of "Dinner for One" has also spread to other countries, particularly Scandinavia, where it has also become an end-of-year tradition. It was even shown on East German television, beginning in 1988.
Getting in on the joke
Ironically, the sketch is totally unknown in the English-speaking world, despite its origins in British music halls. It has never been shown in either Britain or the US.
English-speaking visitors to Germany are often confused by continual references to this obscure sketch. In a bid to make casual conversation, a German might ask "Same procedure as last year?"
A silly moment of merriment
Frinton was a master at playing comic drunks and had a huge following on British television in the 1950s. His career was in a lull when he taped the German version of his popular sketch. He died of a heart attack at 59 in 1968, before the many reruns of the sketch made him a household name in Germany. Warden died ten years later, three years before what would have been her own 90th birthday.