People all over the world watch “Dinner for One” on New Year’s Eve
“DINNER FOR ONE” is watched all over the world on December 31st. The 18-minute British comedy sketch, recorded in 1963, holds the Guinness World Record for the most frequently aired television programme. It is a particularly crucial part of Germany’s festive programming, where it has been broadcast on Das Erste, a public television channel, since 1972. Around half the population still tunes in on New Year’s Eve to watch it; some Germans recreate the meal served in the skit. In 2018 the German Post Office unveiled a set of commemorative stamps featuring its characters. One of its lines—“the same procedure as every year”—has become something of a catchphrase in the country. So enduring is “Dinner for One” that in 2016 Netflix released a parody.
Filmed in grainy black-and-white, the routine involves Miss Sophie (May Warden), who is celebrating her 90th birthday with James, her butler (Freddie Frinton). She has outlived her four closest friends and so insists that James impersonate them all in turn. They are an eclectic bunch. First is Sir Toby, a raspy-voiced northerner. Next up is Admiral von Schneider, who raises his toasts with a loud “Skol!” Then comes the turn of Mr Pommeroy, who speaks in an alarmingly high-pitched falsetto. The last guest is Mr Winterbottom, Miss Sophie’s “very dear friend”, who is a booze-swilling lecher.
With every course served and glass raised in Miss Sophie’s honour, James gradually becomes so drunk that he can hardly stand (in an extra irony, it so happens that Frinton himself was teetotal). Drinks are spilled, plates go flying and, in a recurring gag, James keeps tripping over the head of an enormous tiger rug. Miss Sophie, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her, ploughs on and has a thoroughly enjoyable evening. It soon becomes clear that this performance happens every year.
Part of the sketch’s appeal is that it features someone getting stinking drunk. This may not be an original scenario in comedy, yet there is something undeniably charming about the interplay between a kindly, if bossy, elderly woman and her blindly loyal manservant. The stiff social setting is brilliantly contrasted with the cast of eccentric characters and the surrealism of the whole imaginary set-up. There are some obvious reasons why it is popular even among those who do not speak English. The comedy is mostly physical, and easily breaks through the language barrier; the innuendo-laden finale is not hard to parse, either.
What is curious is the sketch’s obscurity in its country of origin. Though it was first performed in Britain as early as 1934, today hardly any Britons have heard of or seen it. Its first airing on national British television was in 2018, more than half a century after it was filmed, and even then on Sky Arts, a pay-TV channel. (It is now also freely available on YouTube.) Some critics have argued that Britons shun it due to discomfort with the sketch’s depiction of class, though this seems unlikely given the sending-up of snobbery in some of the country’s best-loved comedies such as “Dad’s Army” and “Monty Python”. Other commentators think it is the references to empire, such as that tiger-skin rug, which sit uncomfortably with Brits. Again, this does not quite explain the collective amnesia surrounding the sketch.
If it is largely ignored by Britons, “Dinner for One” has a loyal and enthusiastic audience elsewhere—as well as Germany, it will be shown during the festive period in Estonia, Australia, Norway and Denmark. At this time of year people gravitate towards old television shows and films as a form of comfort. “Dinner for One” links people to the past and, perhaps, brings back fond memories of loved ones of their own who are no longer here.
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/12/30/people-all-over-the-world-watch-dinner-for-one-on-new-years-eve
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