Germans Ring In The New Year With 'Dinner For One'

Jan 1, 2018
Originally published on January 1, 2018 5:56 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. Let's say it again. Happy 2018, everybody. If you had the TV on while you were celebrating last night, you probably saw some glitz, a few musical acts, a lot of partying maybe. Not the case in Germany. There's a favorite New Year's TV tradition there that is a whole lot tamer. It is a century-old British play. And Germans have watched this thing so many times that Guinness World Records has called it the world's most frequently repeated TV show. Here's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU" RENDITION)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: "Dinner For One" is barely 11 minutes long. It's about a butler named James and Miss Sophie, the lady of the house where he works.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DINNER FOR ONE")

MAY WARDEN: (As Miss Sophie) Everything looks very nice.

FREDDIE FRINTON: (As James) Thank you very much, Miss Sophie. Thank you.

WARDEN: (As Miss Sophie) Is everybody here?

FRINTON: (As James) They're all here waiting for you, Miss Sophie, yes.

NELSON: The two characters, played here by the late British comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden, are at a 90th birthday dinner Miss Sophie throws for herself and four of her former beaus. But there's a catch. The beaus are not actually there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DINNER FOR ONE")

FRINTON: (As James) By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?

WARDEN: (As Miss Sophie) Same procedure as every year, James.

FRINTON: (As James) Same procedure as every year, James.

NELSON: The procedure means James pretends to be all four men. He toasts Miss Sophie and drinks from each of their goblets that he fills first with sherry, then wine, then champagne and finally port.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DINNER FOR ONE")

FRINTON: (As James, slurring speech) It's one of the nicest little women - one of the nicest little women that ever breathed.

NELSON: Not surprisingly, the butler ends up drunk and can barely carry the dishes or navigate the dining room, which has a fur rug with a tiger head he keeps tripping over.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: It's classic slapstick. And nowadays, the innuendo is a bit troubling - for example, the closing scene in which Miss Sophie instructs her employee to join her upstairs. But for nearly 15 million Germans, sitting down with loved ones to watch "Dinner For One" before ringing in the New Year is a time-honored tradition, says Thomas Schreiber. He's the head of entertainment at the German network NDR. He spoke to me from their studio in Hamburg.

THOMAS SCHREIBER: It's each and every generation I have to look at the engineer sitting behind the glass window. Are you watching it? Is it part of your ritual?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, it is.

SCHREIBER: So - and he's, I would say, in his 20s. So you grew up with it. And the 31 of December without "Dinner For One" is not the 31 of December.

NELSON: The skit was first introduced in Germany in the early '60s, when there wasn't much in the way of programming here. The version that is most popular features Frinton and Warden. It was filmed in English before a live German audience in Hamburg in 1963. Schreiber says there have been many variations since then, some live, others satirical and even once performed in various German dialects. There's also a Swiss version and a colorized version. But none have supplanted the black-and-white original, he says.

SCHREIBER: The humor was what carried it and the assumption that this was something totally, totally British, which Germans were very fond of in those days.

NELSON: "Dinner For One" aired roughly 20 times in Germany between yesterday noon and 1 this morning. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "TAGTRAUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.