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