A British music hall sketch that has sunk into obscurity in its country of origin but is an indispensable New Year’s Eve ritual in swathes of continental Europe will be given a new lease of life, after the German production powerhouse UFA announced this week it would start filming a six-part prequel next year.
Originally scripted by the variety playwright Lauri Wylie and first performed in English music halls in the 1920s, Dinner for One was recorded as a black-and-white film for German television in the early 60s, it has been a staple of New Year’s Eve television schedules in countries also including Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden for at least 50 years.
The sketch – performed in English – revolves around an evidently wealthy older woman, Miss Sophie (played by May Warden), celebrating her 90th birthday by hosting a dinner party for a group of male admirers – all extravagantly monikered and, it seems, long dead.
Butler James (Freddie Frinton) rises to the challenge of raising a toast on behalf of each of Miss Sophie’s departed friends, impersonating them with increasing gusto as the alcohol flows over several courses.
UFA’s planned prequel series, Dinner for Five, based on a 2002 crime caper by the German author Michael Koglin, is set 51 years before the famous birthday party, in the year 1921, at a country house near Eastbourne, East Sussex.
Five men vie for the attention of the unmarried and emancipated Miss Sophie, aged 39: Admiral Von Schneider, a Prussian militarist, the adventurer Sir Toby, the French bon vivant Mr Pommeroy, Mr Winterbottom, “an Englishman and colonialist”, and the son of the estate’s butler, James.
“As a child, I always asked myself why the four men don’t sit at the table and what they may have looked like,” said the producer and scriptwriter Tommy Wosch as the commissioning of the series was announced on Thursday. “Of course, it would be a dream to produce a New Year’s Eve classic for the entire family.”
Even without the support of a prequel, Dinner for One’s success as a cultural export continues unabated, its catchphrase “same procedure as every year” now received as much as a comment on its own ritualised function as Miss Sophie’s birthday traditions.
This year, the sketch will be screened no fewer than 18 times on various television channels over New Year’s Eve, with the first broadcast going out at 3.30pm and the last at 5.30am on New Year’s Day.
Four airings will be dubbed in German dialects, including Low German or Plattdeutsch, Colognian or Kölsch, and two variations of Hessian.