Friday, December 28, 2007

When it comes to the German people, one of the most enduring stereotypes is that they have no sense of humour. This is unfair and untrue. If nothing else, they are connoisseurs of slapstick, which explains the enduring popularity of Dinner for One, an old British music-hall sketch that the German television networks show every New Year's Eve.

The setting for the piece is the 90th birthday party of an aristocratic female called Miss Sophie. Her table is set for a group of friends, all of whom have predeceased her. Not daunted, it falls to her butler, James, to pour the guests' drinks. As he does so, he asks Miss Sophie if she wants him to follow "the same procedure as last year", to which she replies "the same procedure as every year". The same procedure being that he has to drink the drinks himself, supplying a brief impersonation of each guest. Unsurprisingly, with a different booze being specified for each course, he becomes thoroughly Rowley Birkin-ed, and a rich vein of comedy ensues as he tries to dish up the dinner while utterly paralytic. His attempts to negotiate a path round, over or past a tigerskin rug are particularly joyous. In short, it's a masterclass in physical comedy. Finally, Miss Sophie declares that she is ready to retire to bed. "Same procedure as last year?" asks James. "Same procedure as every year," replies Miss Sophie, and they disappear upstairs together.

The piece, which is believed to have been written in the 1920s, was the star turn of the comedian Freddie Frinton. Despite being the star of the BBC sitcom Meet the Wife (very few episodes of which survive, despite being enough of a smash hit to be namechecked in a Beatles song), it appears that Frinton never performed his most famous sketch on British television. Certainly, if he did, no recording has survived. The German recording resulted from a visit to Blackpool in 1962 by German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld and his producer Heinz Dunkhase. Frankenfeld persuaded Frinton to come to Germany and perform it in his live show, and at one performance in March 1963, an outside broadcast unit from the Norddeutscher Rundfunk network captured it. Frinton had served in World War II and had the hatred of Germans that many of his generation and experience shared, but he overcame that to accept the offer. That Frinton's greatest fame should be in a country he disliked so intensely is as noteworthy as the fact that, despite being a superb comedy drunk, he was, like Jimmy James, a teetotaller. The broadcast went down well, but it wasn't until it was shown on New Year's Eve in 1972 that it began to acquire its ritualistic status. Since then, it's been shown every year, at various times of the day by the regional German broadcasting networks. The German recording has never been shown on British television, but it's been part of my own New Year's Eve ritual - along with Rikki Fulton, Still Game, the Edinburgh Castle gun, a bottle of single malt and not even thinking about leaving the house - ever since my friend Gavin Sutherland gave me a tape years ago. We can rest assured that if the BBC had ever screened it, the tape would now be wiped or misfiled. Or, even worse, only ever dragged out for clip shows where a nanosecond would be shown as a prelude to five minutes of Barry Shitpeas passing a judgment along the lines of "Yeah, right, and they're going to have sex. They're really old. Gross. What's all that about? Can I have my money now, please?" despite not being able to display one iota of Frinton's comic craftsmanship in his own work.

Frinton died in 1968, just before he was due to return to Germany to remake the sketch in colour. In recent years, the original tape has been colourised fairly sympathetically, and this is the version I present here for download. It's a 200MB AVI file, suitable for viewing on Xvid/Divx-compatible DVD players. May it bring as much joy to your Hogmanay celebrations as it does to mine.