Friday, 4 January 2013

16: New Year with Dinner for One

As fireworks explode and shine over the skyline of most towns and villages approaching New Year, a quintessential German favourite is dusted down and brought out of the closet for the umteenth time. If there is a German New Year's tradition par excellence, other than roasting each other's earballs with the sound of mild explosives, it is the universally loved Dinner for One

Blinded by the light, deafened by the roar.
Don't be fooled by the title - Dinner for One has little to do with food, other than Mulligatawny soup. The slapstick sketch from the early 1920s used to be performed by street actors at seaside peers in the UK. Through some preglobalisation miracle, the show emigrated and landed in a German theatre in 1963, where it swiftly became a cult hit. 

Forty million Germans watch it every New Year since 1972, even though it has nothing to do with New Year. Millions more people watch it in Estonia, Latvia and The Faroe Islands every December 31 - again, even though it has nothing to do with New Year.

To understand just quite how much the sketch means to Germans, simply check out the YouTube comments below the video. "New Year wouldn't be New Year without it," says one. Imagine: systems rebooted, time stalled as James forgets to serve Ms Sophie white wine with her fish. "This is why the British will always be the undisputed masters of comedy," says Rattimoth. Really? This is the reason? One can only presume that Rattimoth would have Benny Hill and Mr Bean to complete his Top 3 Funniest Shows Ever.  

The English-language sketch is watched by millions of people every 365 days - but, curiously, only non-English speaking people. Despite dozens of broadcasts on mainstream channels in half of the founding Eurozone states, the show has not been broadcast in its entirety in the UK for over thirty years.

The setting for the sketch is an upper-class dinner party, Ms Sophie's 90th birthday. The only problem is the guests - Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and and Mr Winterbottom - are all dead and their seats are empty. So the obliging butler, James, is forced to impersonate each guest, toast-by-toast, course-by-course, to keep the role-play going.  

Of course, James gets drunker with every toast, a fact compounded by the butler's inevitable slide into past habits, revealed in the show's punch-line:

JAMES: Same procedure as last year, Ms Sophie?
MS SOPHIE: Same procedure as every year, James. 

It is hard to understand why the show has cemented itself between years. After all, it has little to do with New Year. Or Germany. Or the Faroe Islands.

The show was playing at a theatre in Blackpool when a German producer saw it and imported it to Hamburg. Ten years later it was all over German television like breast implants. Even the actors who played the roles in Blackpool and Hamburg in 1963, Freddie Frinton and May Warden, have no idea how the show became a ritual of changing datelines.  

The tiger skin carpet, whose head James repeatedly trips on, the sherry, the absurd names, but why still?

Germans like familiar procedures. Why try a new sketch every year when everybody already knows they find this one funny? One would imagine the sketch loses some of its element of surprise after 40 years, but watch it with any German friend and you'll see that it's as funny, if not funnier, than last year.

The fact that it ends with sexual innuendo merely pleases further. Expect to hear the punch-line "Same as last year, huh?" followed by a wink and air-fuck in pubs across the country.


  1. It is astounding. I just came across this blog by accident, and yet again I read the same stories and complaints about sitting down peeing, cleaning lists, serious board games, naked bathing, nazis, etc. etc. The novelty is wearing out. Is there any expat out there who can finally rise above these petty, boring details and "blog" about something a bit more substantial? Is it that you have to distance yourself so much from your "adopted" home country by repeatedly pointing out its oddities in order to veil your own insecurities, to make yourself feel better? Do you bother learning the language? Do you bother making "German" friends? Probably not. You'll go back home in a few years and then you'll brag about "having lived abroad", which will give you an equally higher status among your fellow Brits. I envy you. You're a real winner. (Dear God, that's 10 minutes of my day wasted).

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Do you think God has time to hear you wasted your time?

    2. Complaining about everything... Germans...

  2. As it is in english, it is hard to understand for normal germans. So you have to concentrate on what is going on. Every year I understood more of it. Perhaps it is so funny, because of that. "I now declare this bazar open!"
    Never seen a german serving wine with a "white wine to the fish!". And what a nonsense about "nothing to do with the new year?" Every round there is a "Happy new year, Miss Sophie!".
    I will watch this till I die!

    @anonymous: germans are thankfull for the mirror given us from foreign people. Makes us think about what we should think over (cleaning list), or beeing proud of (sitpeeing, naked bathing).

    1. Quite the reverse, mike60, it's looking right back at us.