How An Obscure British Comedy Sketch Became The World’s Most Repeated TV Program

iStock / Norddeutscher Rundfunk
iStock / Norddeutscher Rundfunk

The Simpsons cemented its title as America’s longest-running primetime scripted series with the announcement of seasons 29 and 30. For a time, Baywatch was the world’s most syndicated program, sold to 148 countries and a weekly global audience of over a billion people. And in 1983, up to 125 million people (an unprecedented 77 percent audience share) watched "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," the last ever episode of M*A*S*H. But when it comes to the single most repeated program in history, that title is claimed by none of television’s biggest names, but by an obscure British comedy sketch, filmed in 1963 with a cast of two, that has gained a cult audience all over the world.

The two stars in question were British comedian Freddie Frinton and 72-year-old actress May Warden. Frinton first made a name for himself in the music halls and variety shows of wartime Britain, and after World War II added a sketch to his show entitled "Dinner For One."

In the sketch he plays James, a butler, employed by Miss Sophie, played by Warden, an upper class woman who is celebrating her 90th birthday with a fine banquet. Sadly, Miss Sophie has long outlived her four closest friends—Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pommeroy and Mr. Winterbottom—but places are set at her dinner table regardless, with James valiantly stepping in to impersonate each one.

As each of the four courses are served—with Miss Sophie explaining each time that the pair will follow the “same procedure as every year” —James tops up the four missing guests’ glasses, toasts Miss Sophie’s health, and downs them all. And needless to say, by the end of the meal (and after four glasses of sherry, four glasses of white wine, four glasses of champagne, and four glasses of port) James is slightly the worse for wear. At the end of the sketch, as they're going up to Miss Sophie’s bedroom, James asks, “Same procedure as last year?” and Miss Sophie replies, “Same procedure as every year.” James responds, “Well, I’ll do my very best,”—a very risqué move at the time.

"Dinner For One" was originally written in the 1920s by English author and scriptwriter Lauri Wylie, but it proved so popular with his audiences that Frinton eventually bought the rights to it and continued to perform it as part of his show for the next seven years. Then, during a tour of English seaside resorts in 1962, a German entertainer and television star named Peter Frankenfeld happened to see Frinton and Warden performing the sketch in Blackpool and asked if they would like to reproduce it as part of his TV show, Guten Abend. The following year, the pair travelled to Germany and filmed it in English—though under the German title "Der 90 Geburtstag," or “The 90th Birthday”— in front of a live studio audience; by then, the pair were so used to the material that it took just one take to get a flawless recording.

But how did such an unassuming sketch become the Guinness World Records’ most repeated TV show ever?

Well, besides proving immediately popular with Frankenfeld’s audience, part of the skit’s success lies in Frinton’s expert physical comedy (which needs no subtitles and so works across the language boundary) and partly in its short running time, which for many years made it the perfect short to fill time between broadcasts. After being used sporadically as little more than a time-filler over the next decade, in 1972, German television network Norddeutscher Rundfunk decided to schedule it at 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. The viewers loved it, and a now annual tradition was established.

"Dinner For One" has been shown every New Year’s Eve in Germany since, and has established itself as such a traditional part of the country’s New Year celebrations that Miss Sophie’s catchphrase is now familiar to practically all native German speakers: In 1996, an opposition finance minister even accused his opponent of adopting “the same procedure as every year” in the German parliament.

More recently, others countries have gotten in on the tradition, and "Dinner For One" has now established itself as a New Year’s tradition in the likes of Denmark, Austria, and Sweden; as a pre-Christmas tradition in Norway, where it’s broadcast annually on December 23; and has amassed a cult following in countries as far afield as Estonia and South Africa. "Dinner For One" has since racked up more than 200 individual broadcasts (it was reportedly shown 19 times on different German networks on New Year’s Eve 2003 alone), easily taking the title as the world’s most-repeated television program. Although ironically, for such a quintessentially British sketch, it has yet to be shown in its entirety on British television …

Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2013.

11 Dothraki Words and Phrases Every Game of Thrones Fan Should Know

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

You know the words khal and khaleesi, but consider working these other words and phrases from the Dothraki language—which was created by linguist David J. Peterson, and featured in Living Language Dothraki—into your vocabulary before the final season of Game of Thrones premieres on April 14, 2019.

1. M’athchomaroon!

The Dothraki way of saying hi, this word—which can also be shortened to M’ach! or M’ath!—translates to “With respect.” To say hello to a group of non-Dothrakis, you would use the phrase Athchomar chomakea, which literally translates to “Respect to those that are respectful.” Fonas chek, which translates to "hunt well," is one way to say goodbye.

2. San athchomari yeraan!

Peterson writes that the Dothraki have no word for “thank you.” Instead, use this phrase, which literally translates to “a lot of honor to you!” but basically means “much respect!”

3. Fichas jahakes moon!

These are Dothraki fighting words, meant to encourage the warriors in their khalasar (or Dothraki group). This phrase means “get him!” but literally translates to “Take his braid”—which makes sense, since Dothrakis cut off their braids after a defeat. A Dothraki who wins a lot of battles is a lajak haj, or “strong warrior.”

4. And 5. Yer shekh ma shieraki anni and Yer jalan atthirari anni

Jason Momoa and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Both of these phrases—the first said by a male, the second by a female—mean “you are my loved one,” but they literally translate to phrases well-known to Game of Thrones fans: “You are my sun and stars” and “You are the moon of my life.” As Peterson notes, “these expressions come from Dothraki mythology, in which the sun is the husband of the moon.”

6. Anha dothrak adakhataan

Peterson writes that “as a result of the importance of horses to Dothraki culture, there are many idiomatic expressions related to horses and riding.” This phrase is best used before a meal: It means “I’m about to eat,” and literally translates to “I ride to eating.” If you were Dothraki, you’d likely be eating fresh horsemeat (gavat) and drinking mare’s milk (lamekh ohazho, which is often just shortened to lamekh).

7. Hrazef

This is Dothraki for horse, and there are many other words relating to horses in the language. A good one to know is the word for the great stallion, a.k.a., “the deity worshipped by the Dothraki”: vezhof.

8. Addrivat

Joseph Naufahu, Tamer Hassan, Emilia Clarke, Elie Haddad, Darius Dar Khan, and Diogo Sales in Game of Thrones
HBO

If there’s one thing the Dothraki are very good at, it’s killing, and they have multiple words for the deed. This is a verb meaning “to kill,” and literally translates to “to make something dead.” Both Ds are pronounced. It’s used, according to Peterson, “when the killer is a sentient being.” (Drozhat is used when a person is killed by an animal or an inanimate object, "like a fallen rock," Peterson writes.)

9. Asshekhqoyi vezhvena!

The next time your friend or loved one is celebrating another year around the sun, use this Dothraki phrase, which means “happy birthday” but literally translates to “[Have] a great blood-day!”

10. Zhavorsa or Zhavvorsa

Dothraki for dragon. Finne zhavvorsa anni? means “Where are my dragons?” This word might not be super applicable in everyday life, so jano—the Dothraki word for dog or dogs—is probably more appropriate.

11. Vorsa

Dracarys—a.k.a., what Dany says to Drogon to get him to let loose—is the High Valyrian word for dragonfire. It's unclear if the Dothraki have a word for dragonfire, but the word for fire is vorsa. Sondra, meanwhile, is their word for obsedian—or, as it's called on Game of Thrones, dragonglass.

For more information on the Dothraki language and culture, pick up Living Language Dothraki: A Conversational Language Course Created by David J. Peterson Based on the Hit Original HBO Series Game of Thrones at Amazon.

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