It’s titled Dinner for One, and occasionally known as The 90th Birthday. Never heard of it? I’ll explain: Dinner for One is a two-person comedy sketch written for the stage by English actor-writer Lauri Wylie. In 1963, the 18-minute skit was broadcast on West German TV, starring comedy legends May Warden and Freddie Frinton.
Since then, the short film has gained something of a cult following. And, despite its English dialogue and July premiere, it has become a tradition to rebroadcast Dinner for One each New Year’s Eve across many European countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland. (It has gained popularity in Australia and South Africa too.) This has, over decades, made the program one of the most broadcast ever.
But … why? Well, that’s been the subject of academic research and even a Danish documentary. Frankly, it’s very funny. And wine lovers might be interested to know that the sketch’s humor is largely built around wine pairings for a formal dinner.
Here’s the plot: For her 90th birthday, Miss Sophie (played by Warden) hosts dinner for four close friends. It would be a cheerful occasion if not for the fact that she is the only surviving member of the group. Nonetheless, Sophie has her butler, James (Frinton), prepare a four-course dinner for her and the “guests.” The meal is served à la russe, meaning that each course is served individually to Sophie and the four empty seats at her table.
The first course is mulligatawny soup, which Sophie requests be served alongside Sherry. Of course, only she can actually enjoy the fortified wine, leaving the other four glasses for James. This dynamic continues as the butler serves North Sea haddock and an unspecified white wine, then chicken and Champagne and, finally, fruit and Port, with James drinking the remaining four glasses at each pass and becoming noticeably drunk. Much slurring and physical comedy ensues.
So, upon its 60th year on the small screen, I would like to take the opportunity to salute Dinner for One. Spanning two different centuries, this humble black-and-white film has shown audiences around the world that wine pairing can be ripe for comedy. But, unlike James the butler, please sip responsibly in 2023.