June 25, 2012


What's German for funny?: What makes Germans laugh - and why is it so different from what amuses the British? The answer may lie in a slapstick English comedy that became a TV favourite in Germany (Philip Oltermann, 2/12/12, guardian.co.uk)

The sketch is called Dinner for One, and it is easily described. The curtain opens on butler James laying a lavish dinner table. The lady of the house, Miss Sophie, wearing an elegant evening dress, descends a flight of stairs, and sits at the head of the table. We soon realise that it is her 90th birthday, and that something is not quite right. "Is everybody here?" Miss Sophie asks. "They're all here waiting, Miss Sophie, yes," James says, gesticulating towards the empty seats around the table. "Sir Toby?" Sophie asks. "Sir Toby is sitting here," James says, patting the back of the chair on Miss Sophie's right, and continues to assign seats to the imaginary guests named by his mistress: "Admiral von Schneider", "Mr Pommeroy" and "my very dear friend, Mr Winterbottom".

The evening continues in this vein. James serves four courses: mulligatawny soup, haddock, chicken and fruit. With each, Miss Sophie requests a different drink: first sherry, then white wine, then champagne, then port. In the absence of any actual people around the table, James impersonates the different guests and toasts the host on their behalf. With each course, James's walk becomes less stable, his tour around the dining room more haphazard.

Much of the comedy in Dinner for One is slapstick, knockabout stuff: James spills wine, drops food, crashes into furniture and downs the water in the flower vases instead of what's in the port glasses. But the most memorable comic moment in the sketch is verbal. Before each change of wine, James stops short: "By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" The mistress of the house looks accusingly at her servant: "The same procedure as every year, James." At the end of the sketch, Miss Sophie decides to retire to her bedroom. James, now completely drunk, offers his arm. For a final time, there is the catchphrase - but this time, the effect is different: "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"

"Same procedure as every year, James."

"Well, I'll do my very best."

As he is dragged offstage, James winks at the audience, baring his gappy teeth for a Cheshire-cat grin.

Originally scripted by the variety playwright Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, Dinner for One, also known as The Ninetieth Birthday, used to be a staple in the music-halls of seaside resorts from Blackpool down to Brighton: a very British kind of pleasure. Very British, that is, until German TV show host Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase watched the sketch at Blackpool's Winter Gardens in August 1962. Straight after the show, Frankenfeld convinced the two performers - veteran comic Freddie Frinton and 72-year-old May Warden - to record their act for German TV, even though it took the show almost another 10 years to find an audience there.

On New Year's Eve 1972, NDR, northern Germany's regional television channel, screened the sketch at 6pm, and something clicked. In fact, something amazing happened: Germany fell utterly in love with it. People put down their plates of potato salad and left their frankfurters to cool; entire parties huddled around the television set. The following year, each of the regional channels showed Dinner for One at 6pm, and a few showed a repeat four hours later. Since 1963, the sketch has been screened 231 times to German audiences, making it the most repeated show on German television, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most popular show in TV history. In 2004, 15.6 million Germans watched it.
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Posted by at June 25, 2012 7:10 AM

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