How a TV sketch recorded in 1963 continues to cheer people around the world each NYE
As still-fashionable coronapanic means more people than ever before will be spending New Year’s Eve in their own homes and often therefore alone, it’s timely to mention an old TV sketch that has become increasingly popular over the years. Strictly speaking, Dinner For One isn’t actually about someone having dinner on their own; it’s about someone using their endlessly faithful servant to re-create past dinners when old friends were still present and not six feet underground.
The conceit is simple: Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday and her butler James facilitates her whimsy, which is to have James re-create in turn the personas of all her departed friends: Sir Toby, a curmudgeonly northerner; Admiral von Schneider, a naval toper; Mr Pommeroy, possessed of an astonishingly high-pitched voice; and Mr Winterbottom, a sozzled letcher and Miss Sophie’s “very dear friend.” The comedy comes from the fact that with every course served a toast is made in Miss Sophie’s honor. As she delicately sips from her glass the long-suffering James must drink copiously from all four of the supposed guests’ glasses. And thus as the sketch proceeds, James becomes more and more inebriated while Miss Sophie appears to notice nothing amiss.
The original sketch can be seen here
While the sketch is charming in itself, being a mix of postwar British social commentary and genteel manners coupled with absurd slapstick, it is also the perfect frame for contemporary political and social commentary. In the early part of this century a clever social satirist superimposed the heads of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy over the two actors’ bodies and created a quite different dialogue sequence, parodying the relationship between the German and French leaders. This version can be seen here
Sadly, the British don’t seem to have grasped the comedic potential of this sketch despite it being a British creation. There is consequently no version with Margaret Thatcher as Miss Sophie and Geoffrey Howe as James — an omission that aficionados of political satire must deeply regret. Likewise US citizens are equally oblivious, which means there’s no version with Hillary playing Miss Sophie to Bill’s over-imbibing James.
We can hope, however, with the White House shortly passing into the hands of a new occupant, that some enterprising visual parodist will create in time for NYE 2021 a version in which Kamala plays the female lead while Joe totters back and forth as James.
And we must also hope for the sake of us all in 2021 that the closing line of the sketch is not in fact fulfilled: “the same procedure as every year.”
Until then, I will simply wish a Happy New Year to my devoted readers.
Thank you both!