No matter what you do on New Year’s Eve in Sweden, there is one thing nearly all parties have in common: an 11-minute television interlude to watch a black-and-white sketch in English called Dinner for One. Loved in Scandinavia and Germany; virtually unknown in the rest of the world.
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Dinner for who?
Okay, let’s start with the basics: The dinner is for Miss Sophie, the last member of an old English family.
The sketch, also known as The 90th Birthday or as Grevinnan och betjänten in Swedish (The Countess and the Butler), is about the old lady’s anniversary celebration in the dining room of her musty mansion. She – played by May Warden – is not actually a countess, made obvious by the fact that her Butler James – played by Freddie Frinton – keeps referring to her as “Miss”, but Swedes aren’t fussy about that sort of thing.
Why is it so popular on New Year’s Eve?
The first time the programme aired on New Year’s Eve in Sweden was in 1976 and it quickly gained a regular place in the TV schedule. The 1963 sketch was actually first broadcast in Sweden in 1969, but Swedish public broadcaster SVT was a bit iffy about the amount of alcohol drunk, mainly by the butler, although frankly Miss Sophie certainly seems like she can hold her own in that regard too.
Why is the dinner only for one? Doesn’t the old lady have any guests?
Why yes, of course. Miss Sophie has invited her friends Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and Mr Winterbottom, but they all died some time ago. Not to be hindered by this slight setback, the dinner goes ahead as usual with Butler James pretending he is them to help keep Miss Sophie in good spirits.
All men? What a saucy old granny…
Well, some people say all of them have been former admirers. Unsuccessful ones, though. Butler James is the only one who gets lucky on an annual basis, but we’ll get to that later.
Freddie Frinton and May Warden in ‘Dinner for One’. Photo: SVT
And what’s so funny about the sketch?
We’ll explain this the way a Swede would.
The comedy comes from Butler James taking the places of Sir Toby et al. First, in his capacity as butler, he has to serve all guests drinks for every course and, as none of them are actually there, for reasons that are not altogether clear he has to empty their glasses himself.
James slips into the different personas and toasts Miss Sophie in each guest’s appropriate way. For Admiral von Schneider, he clicks his heels together every time and salutes with a loud “Skol!” of the top of his voice. For Mr Winterbottom he puts on a northern English accent.
And so on.
The Swedes know the dialogue by heart, so prepare for them to recite it along with the actors.
We’re still waiting for the joke…
So are we, but hang on. Because with every drink he slugs back, the usually reserved and refined demeanour of Butler James starts to slip as he slurs and stumbles his way around the table. Add to this an unfortunately positioned tiger skin rug, the head of which James has to overcome on his frequent trips to the bar. Appropriate for the slapstick era when it was made.
Swedes find this hilarious and if it is your kind of thing, there is admittedly a certain charm of repetitive humour to it (you end up laughing prematurely not because he trips on the tiger’s head, but because you know he is about to). But as one international resident in Sweden once told us: “The Swede sat in stitches while everyone else stared blank-faced. It was the most awkward thing I’ve ever done.”
And Miss Sophie?
The old gal never leaves her place and is apparently totally oblivious about the butler’s alcohol consumption and orders him to serve the respective courses: mulligatawny soup with sherry, haddock with white wine, chicken with champagne and fruit with port. “Same procedure as every year James.”
Mulligatawny-what? Doesn’t sound like a Swedish dinner
Well, it isn’t! The actors May Warden and Freddie Frinton first performed Dinner for One in the British seaside town Blackpool in 1962. German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld discovered the duo, brought them to Germany and the sketch was seen on his live show on regional public broadcaster NDR one year later.
And how did it make its way to Sweden?
There are two versions floating around – the original 18-minute NDR version which is shown every year in Germany and Denmark (in Denmark without the audience heard in the background). An 11-minute version was recorded by Swiss television – with less alcohol – which is shown in Sweden. It was snapped up by SVT’s entertainment editor Åke Söderqvist in 1963, who first struggled to get permission to actually show it because of said alcohol consumption.
It has been shown every year on New Year’s Eve since 1976, apart from 2004 when it was cancelled as a mark of respect for the many tens of thousands who died in the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
What do the Brits have to say about all this?
Surprising to most Scandinavians and Germans – who consider the skit quintessential British humour – Brits only know it exists courtesy of trivia shows and the like. Most find the significance it has for its fellow Europeans and the place it holds in their hearts rather perplexing.
Oh, what was that with the butler getting lucky?
Or perhaps it’s Miss Sophie getting lucky, we’re watching it in gender equal Sweden after all.
In the last scene, she gets ready for bed and calls over her shoulder for James one last time while climbing up the staircase to her bedroom.
He slurs: “The same procedure as last year?” and Miss Sophie answers “The same procedure as every year.” With James winking at the camera and promising he’ll do his best (and after all that booze, we don’t fancy his chances), they both go upstairs together. The End.
Dinner for One can be viewed on SVT1 on New Year’s Eve at 7.45pm.