"Dinner for One" has been a popular if curious New Year's Eve tradition for almost forty years. One theater in Berlin is celebrating a decade of presenting its adaptation for the stage with a marathon of performances.
"Dinner for One": an annual TV tradition since the early 70s
The Brotfabrik arts centre in Berlin Weissensee has staged its own interpretation of the 80-year-old sketch since 2000 with each successive annual performance being tweaked and adjusted to suit both changing tastes and the theatre setting.
"I think it's a special thing to be able to work with this tradition and even to change it a little bit," said Nils Foerster, director of this year's performance, "An off-theater company had the idea to make a version out of this very famous sketch, and it was really as if Berlin was waiting for it. It's already a big tradition."
"Now, every year we have a different version of it. Everybody knows the original, but when they go into the theater they don't see the original, they see a kind of homage," he added.
The cast of this year's "Dinner for One" production with actress Wermelskirchen
"The same procedure as every year"
The original sketch has its origins in British vaudeville theater. Written in the 1920s by Lauri Wylie, it's a simple two-hander which features the aristocrat Miss Sophie and her butler, James. It's Miss Sophie's 90th birthday but as her four invited guests are all long since dead, James must take their place. He becomes increasingly inebriated as the sketch proceeds, having to drink a toast - as each of the four deceased guests - with each course.
German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld caught a performance of the sketch in Blackpool, UK in 1962 and invited performers Freddie Frinton and May Warden to record it for his variety program on Norddeutscher Rundfunk (Northern German Broadcasting) in summer 1963.
While the sketch proved extremely popular at the time, it didn't gain its regular New Year's Eve slot until 1972 and has been shown across the country on December 31 without a break ever since, landing it a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for Most Repeated Television Program. Miss Sophie's catchphrase, "The same procedure as every year," has even entered into common usage in the German language.
Two curious factors surround the sketch; firstly, it achieved massive popularity in Germany despite being recorded entirely in English. Secondly, although a product of the British music hall tradition, it remains virtually unknown in its homeland having never been screened on television there.
German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld took "Dinner for One" to Germany in 1963
Playing an icon
Long after their deaths, performers Freddie Frinton and May Warden remain highly visible personalities in German popular culture. Playing Miss Sophie in the Brotfrabrik's performance for the second year running is 29-year-old actress Doreen Wermelskirchen, who had some doubts about taking on such an iconic role.
"I was a little nervous in the beginning," she said, "I thought, how am I going to play such a famous role? But in our version, Miss Sophie isn't 90. She's just a lady living with a butler and having fun and that's the important part."
As German audiences have seen May Warden play the part on television for almost 40 years, Wermelskirchen is amused at the suggestion that she could still be playing the role on stage forty years from now.
"Well, what should I say?" she laughed. "I don't know. I'll have to think about that!"
A racy closer
So what is it about this obscure seaside sketch that has resonated so much with Germans? Verena Wiedemann, secretary general of German broadcasting network ARD, told Deutsche Welle that its popularity may be partly due to the program's ability to tap into the routine of New Year and that Germans also find the idea of the old British establishment and class system fascinating.
"It's also a very human story," she added, "about someone getting so drunk he can't control his movements. You don't need to understand the language. It's a universal story that's being told in a simple way. And at the very end we learn there is an old lady who only has one thing in mind, which is also very human!"
Forty years on, Freddie Frinton and May Warden are still popular stars in Germany
Despite its simple structure and repetitious slapstick humor, "Dinner for One" does have a surprisingly risque sting in its tail. After dinner is over and James is completely drunk, Miss Sophie decides to retire to bed:
Miss Sophie: As I was saying, I think I'll retire.
James: By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Miss Sophie: The same procedure as ever year, James.
James: Well ... I'll do my very best!
So will "Dinner for One" prove to be just as popular this year as in previous years? With an average of 12 million people tuning in to watch and with Berliners at least having the option of catching one of 10 special stage performances at the Brotfabrik, it seems the sketch's hold on the German collective imagination is unlikely to break.
And after all, it's the same procedure every year, is it not?
"Dinner for One" runs at the Brotfabrik, Caligariplatz 1, Berlin-Weisensee for 10 performances from December 29 to 31.
Author: Gavin Blackburn
Editor: Greg Wiser