Repetition and Ritual in Dinner for One

Every year, along with firecrackers, champagne and pouring molten lead, it has become a tradition in Germany to watch a TV show called Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve. Recorded in a small Hamburg theatre in 1963, the sketch, also known as The 90th Birthday (Der. 90. Geburtstag), has become an integral component of the Silvester schedule and German visual culture. The grammatically incorrect catchphrase of the show ‘same procedure than every year’ has been widely adopted into popular discourse. Shown up to twenty times on various public channels at the height of New Year’s festivities, the sketch has emerged as one of the most watched programs in the history of mass media and culture.

Initially written for the theatre by the British playwright Lauri Wylie in the 1930s, the plot of the 18-minute sketch is strikingly simple. Miss Sophie, an upper-class English lady, has invited her old friends Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and Mr Winterbottom for dinner to celebrate her 90th birthday. However, as the announcer informs the viewer at the beginning of the sketch, Miss Sophie has outlived all her friends by twenty years. It is left to the equally aged butler James to make his way around the table and impersonate each of the guests in turn. The menu is accompanied by a different alcoholic drink served by James, who finds himself raising his glass four times per course. Throughout the sketch, James gets increasingly drunk, slurring his words and repeatedly tripping over the head of a tiger skin. The key to the sketch lies in the repetition of James’ dialogue and movement. In a sense, the sketch is deeply self-referential as not only is James performing the same tasks over and over at the dinner, Miss Sophie too insists on this repetition by celebrating her birthday, year after year, in spite of her friends’ absence. The dramatic tension created by this doubled repetition is further increased with the realization that Dinner for One itself is shown year after year on German television.

But why did this particular TV program became so popular amongst German audiences? The popularity of Dinner for One appears even more unusual since the entire sketch, except for the brief announcement at the beginning, is performed in the English language by English actors. While the live theatre audience, and presumably the TV viewer at home, appears amused by James’ and Miss Sophie’s actions, the four absent figures at the table add a subtly tragic twist to the narrative. In the context of postwar Germany, these four absent figures, all of whom are men, can be read as representing Germany’s troubled past and the many lives lost during World War II. James’ brilliant impersonations brings these characters back to life, and with each time he does so, the theatre audience can be heard breaking into laughter. Particularly Admiral von Schneider raising his glass and saying ‘Skol’ while clicking his feet is almost a comic inversion of the stereotypical Prussian military personnel. The absence of Admiral von Schneider at the dinner table signifies the allegorical death of the unknown soldier from World War II. This reading also fits into the chronology that the announcer sets out at the beginning of the sketch: first screened in 1963, Miss Sophie has outlived her friends by twenty years. In other words, the last of Miss Sophie’s friends passed away in 1943 – in the middle of the war. While in the original sketch performed in British seaside resorts, the playwright Lauri Wylie might have referred to the fallen soldier in World War I, this meaning has changed once removed into a German cultural and historical context.

Dinner for One also offers itself to be read from a postcolonial perspective. For instance, Miss Sophie is served a Mulligatawny soup and the interior decoration of her house, such as the tiger skin, is cluttered with references to the British Empire, or more specifically, a British colonial presence in India. But when Dinner for One was first screened on German television, the British Empire was already crumbling under the debt incurred during the war. There is therefore an element of Schadenfreude when the laughter of the German audience captured in the Hamburg theatre erupts every time the butler James trips over the head of the tiger skin. In the geopolitical context of postwar Europe, James’ clumsiness represents the fall of the British Empire. With the wounds of war barely healed, Dinner for One allows the German audience to wholeheartedly mock both the etiquette and the aspirations of upper-class British society in this study of culture.

Throughout the dinner, the viewer also begins to get the impression that Miss Sophie has once entertained a relationship with each of her male guests. Especially Mr Winterbottom, Miss Sophie points out several times, is a ‘very dear friend’. Miss Sophie’s implied promiscuity is later re-affirmed as she asks James for his services after the dinner. A last ‘thumbs up’ to the audience by James signals that, despite being totally drunk, he is expected to serve one last course in the privacy of Miss Sophie’s bedroom. In the context of New Year’s celebration, the ‘thumbs up’ signifies health, agility, potency and joviality for the new year. But ultimately, it is not the content of the show itself, rather than the context in which it is seen, that is important. The watching of Dinner for One therefore becomes about relationships: ‘Who did you watch the show with last year?’ is the overriding question. And maybe that’s why Dinner for One is so popular in the mass media: because it reminds the viewer that despite a quickly changing world, some things, like the company of relatives and the ritualistic behaviour over the holiday season, are not likely going to change in the new year.

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