“When in Rome”

James: The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?

Miss Sophie: The same procedure as every year, James!

Welcome back loyal readers! I hope each and every one of you had a festive time during the holidays and a terrific New Year’s Eve. For the first time in my life, I was away from the good old U.S.A. on New Year’s Eve.  I was on a wonderful vacation in Deutschland (Germany). On Silvester (New Year’s Eve), I was informed by my hosts that it is a tradition every year to watch a British comedy sketch entitled, Dinner for One (the most frequently repeated television program ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records), also known as The 90th Birthday and in Germany as Der 90. Geburtstag.   

I have to admit that I was a bit perplexed as to how a cabaret sketch written by British author Lauri Wylie in the 1920’s had become a staple of German television for New Year’s Eve viewing. I wondered, and I don’t think I would have been off base had I voiced my inquires aloud, but, nevertheless, I did wonder silently to myself, so as to not offend my German friends, “why not a sketch written by a German author? Wouldn’t that relate better to the population at large?” But, rather than start trouble with people who had shown me a dynamite time while I was visiting the capital city of Berlin, especially a man named Jürgen Fietkau (I couldn’t have asked for a more informative and gracious tour guide), I just thought of the old saying coined by St. Ambrose in 387 A.D., which has stood the test of time quite nicely, “When in Rome, Do as the Romans do.” While I might not have technically been in Rome, you get the point.

Not only is “Dinner for One” must see viewing in Germany, but the black and white, eighteen minute, single scene which stars British comedians Freddie Frinton (Meet the Wife) and Mary Warden (Ours is a Nice House) is popular in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and South Africa. The first fact that I think you should be aware of before you go on YouTube.com to watch this little charmer is that the plot has nothing whatsoever to do with New Year’s Eve. Also of interest is that not only is the show not very well known in Britain, its birthplace, but when shown in European countries where English is not the predominant language it is very often aired without dubbing or subtitles. While it is frequently shown in the aforementioned countries on New Year’s Eve, the plot revolves around the 90th birthday of Miss Sophie, an aristocratic member of English society who every year hosts a dinner party for four of her dear friends. There is one slight problem regarding the guests who have been invited: Admiral Von Schneider, Mr. Pommeroy, Sir Toby, and Mr. Winterbottom, are, unfortunately, all deceased. Miss Sophie, having reached ninety-years of age, has outlived all of her close friends, but coming to the rescue is her aged butler James who does his best to impersonate the dearly departed. Miss Sophie is a woman who likes to toast with each course of the meal, so while she raises her glass once during each of the four courses, poor James has to imbibe four times during each of the servings, which needless to say treats the viewer to some drunken hilarity as the butler displays increasing evidence that he is both confused and having difficulty attending to his tasks.

How did a British comedy sketch make its way to Germany and becomes so immensely popular? The answer lies in the person of German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld (Berlin grüsst Bern) who while visiting Blackpool, England, in 1962, accidentally sat through a performance of Dinner for One. At the time, Frankenfeld had a television show that was filmed live called Guten Abend, and he asked Frinton and Warden to come on his show to perform the sketch; the stars agreed. The now iconic English performance that is watched by millions of viewers, with an introduction in German by moderator Heinz Piper, was filmed on July 8, 1963, in Hamburg, Germany in the Theater am Besenbinderhof. Director Heinz Dunkhase didn’t shoot any second takes while filming the sketch for Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR – North German Broadcasting) a public radio and television broadcaster, but those facts still don’t answer the question regarding the slice of British comedy’s popularity in Germany and beyond.

Numerous possibilities have been put forth by fans and pundits alike as to the sketch’s enduring appeal; two of the more often repeated viewpoints are as follows: One being that while watching the show as a non-English speaking person it’s pretty easy to follow the banter between master and servant. Another theory that some reviewers espouse is that the production contains issues that are normally taboo for television, which makes people want to watch it for shock value, but I disagree.  Perhaps in the early 1960’s showing a lady whose age is impacting her mental facilities, people drinking to excess, dialogue which alludes to the fact that sex is going to be taking place between consenting adults, as well as the presence of some lecherous men (in this case one man playing four roles), are things, whether right or wrong, which are showcased or discussed on television shows and in films with no qualms these days. Even the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) which has never aired the production commented on all of the fervor, stating that Dinner for Onehas become synonymous with British humor, on a par with Mr. Bean.”  It is a widely held belief among the decision makers of the BBC that the sketch is better suited for foreign viewers than the audience in the U.K.

For as long as I can remember, it seems that no matter what party I’ve either been to or hosted on New Year’s Eve, at around ten minutes to midnight the television comes on and it is tuned to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve show, so all in attendance can watch the ball drop. The only year besides this past one where I did not watch those festivities on TV was back in 1995 when I braved the elements and stood in Times Square in my beloved New York City to watch it live. My mother was kind enough this past year to DVR the annual event for me on television, so I still got to see it, but I was beyond grateful that I had an opportunity to partake in another country’s tradition and jovial atmosphere this past New Year’s Eve. I haven’t even mentioned the sensational display of fireworks that were going off all around me, as well as the spectacular production that took place over the Brandenburg Gate because it didn’t deal with the crux of this blog, but both were awe inspiring. My own thoughts regarding Dinner for one are as follows: I think it is a bitter sweet situation comedy that is the perfect combination of wittiness and humor. Sadly, it has not been formatted to play on American DVD players, so you will have to watch it on-line. If you get a chance to spend the less than twenty minutes it takes to view it, perhaps you’ll form your own opinion regarding its lasting impact.

About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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