The Null Device

Festive television across the world

The Graun looks at Christmas and New Year's television programming across the world. While Britons get into the Queen's speech (and "alternative" takes by various "edgy" celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Damon Albarn), Americans are shedding tears over Rankin/Bass's animated Frosty The Snowman, Russians are getting maudlin over extended reruns over a 3-hour comedy titled The Irony Of Fate that they have all seen dozens of times before and Romanians are watching action replays of the execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Meanwhile, Australians are watching celebrities singing "Aussie carols" like Six White Boomers and Santa Never Made It To Darwin (which, in all my years in Australia, I had never heard of), while their (apparently more self-consciously "British") neighbours in New Zealand watch Only Fools And Horses and Morecambe And Wise. The French seem to have the coolest Christmas TV fare, though:
Since 1982, black-comedy Le Père Noël Est Une Ordure (which translates along the lines of Father Christmas Is A Scumbag) has risen from obscure box-office failure to France's ninth most popular movie. Set on Christmas Eve in a social service helpline call centre, three workers try with varying degrees of failure to spread festive cheer among the depressed, suicidal homeless, heartbroken and bereaved who turn up looking for salvation. Utterly bleak, totally farcical, and very very funny.
Across the border in Germany, however, one of the annual Christmas favourites is, inexplicably, an old British comedy skit named Dinner For One:
Dinner for One, also known as Der 90 Geburtstag (The 90th Birthday), has rattled around the cabaret circuit for decades. Written by British author Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, it presents a morbidly funny story in miniature—(just 11 minutes on TV): Elderly Miss Sophie throws her birthday party every year, setting the table for her friends Sir Toby, Mr. Pommeroy, Mr. Winterbottom, and Adm. von Schneider, while conveniently ignoring the fact that they've all been dead for a quarter-century. Her butler James manfully takes up the slack by playacting all of them. He serves both drinks and food while quaffing toasts on behalf of each "guest," a bevy of soused British noblemen and von Schneider, who toasts Miss Sophie with a heel-click and a throaty "Skål!"
In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld stumbled on Dinner for One in Blackpool's seaside circuit. Frankenfeld was so charmed that he invited actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden to perform the sketch on his live TV show Guten Abend, Peter Frankenfeld. The now-classic black-and-white recording dates from a 1963 live performance in Hamburg's Theater am Besenbinderhof.
The skit's popularity has spread across Northern Europe, and it has inspired numerous derivative works, including dubs into regional German dialects, many parodies and a Latin translation. To this day, nobody is entirely sure of why Dinner For One is so big in Germany, though there are theories:
But why? How did a sliver of British humor come to dominate another culture's holidays—with apparently no connective thread back to its source? First, the slapstick of Dinner for One transcends the language barrier. Second, it offers a slight thrill of the verboten: After all, it features a very crazy old lady, a bevy of lecherous male friends, a big stench of post-WWII death, a hell of a lot of drinking, and senior-citizen sex. A third notion, floated by Der Spiegel and the Guardian alike last year, is that the film plays to Germans' worst idea of the British upper class: dotty, pigheadedly traditional, forever marinated in booze despite titles. The BBC counters with the more politic theory that Dinner for One "has become synonymous with British humor, on a par with Mr. Bean." British TV executives see it as fit only for foreigners, or they would rush to broadcast it themselves. Why Germany finds it so funny and the British don't is, according to Der Spiegel's Sebastian Knauer, "one of the last unsolved questions of European integration."
Best of all, Dinner for One is a perfect foundation for a tidy drinking game in which you down four different liquors in 11 minutes, "the same procedure as every year." What more fitting way to ring in the New Year?

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