Europe

Dinner for One: English comedy spices up German New Year

A black and white still from Dinner for one shows James the butler pour drinks for Miss Sophie Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Grimsby comedian Freddie Frinton and Yorkshire's May Warden are household names in Germany

Raise a glass on a German New Year's Eve and you'll likely encounter this toast:

"The same procedure as last year?"

"The same procedure as every year."

It comes from a 15-minute, black-and-white comedy sketch, in English with a British cast, but filmed in Hamburg in 1962. It's called Dinner for One, and it's been shown on German television networks every New Year's Eve for decades.

Just as the Queen's Speech goes with a British Christmas Day, so Dinner for One goes with German New Year's Eve.

As evening falls, people gather round their televisions. Once again, the titles roll - to the sound of a sweet violin - on a fond, familiar scene. A dining room, the table set elegantly for four guests and the hostess, candelabra lit, a tiger-skin rug spread over the tiled floor.

Enter a butler, James - and then 90-year-old Miss Sophie. She's quite forgotten that the friends she's invited to this annual birthday dinner have all long since died.

So it falls to James to follow "the same procedure as every year", serving the imaginary guests - and drinking, on their behalf, to Miss Sophie's health, over and over again - with hilarious results.

Dinner for One has been so popular, for so long, that its English catchphrase "the same procedure as every year" has become an intrinsic part of the German language. You see it in newspaper headlines, hear it in conversation and in political debate.

On New Year's Eve, it's the Auld Lang Syne of the entire country. Yet this 1963 German TV recording has never been broadcast in the UK - until this year: Sky Arts will broadcast the skit to a British audience for the first time on New Year's Eve.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption The sketch was actually filmed on a German set

Another fiercely German tradition this time of year is the love of a flickering flame.

Children as young as three clutch boxes of matches at kindergarten and help to light candles on dark winter mornings. And a popular drink at new year is Feuerzangenbowle - Fire Punch - made by topping a bowl of mulled wine with a rum-soaked sugarloaf - then setting fire to the lot.

As midnight approaches, people crowd outside carrying fireworks - hundreds of thousands of them. As the hour strikes, cities, towns and villages erupt into exhilarating, terrifying confusion.

Rockets zoom from beer bottles held in outstretched hands, firecrackers are flung from balconies into seething streets below.

Germans spend at least €100m (£90m; $114m) a year on fireworks - and they're almost all to let off on New Year's Eve, the only time when it's actually legal do so without permission from the local police department.

Don't even think of trying to get down your street after midnight unless willing to dodge through a deafening, jam-packed mayhem of continuous explosion, acrid smoke and dazzling rainbow flames.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Fireworks burst over Berlin's Brandenburg Gate on (just about) 1 January 2018

The official cause of most serious injuries is cheap, illegal fireworks - packed with high explosive, combined with a lethally short fuse.

But the only official safety warnings on New Year's Eve tend to concern dangerous levels of air pollution. It shows up clearly on satellite images - Germany a smudge on the globe enveloped in thick swirls of misty, twinkling firework smog.

Germany explodes around one-fifth of its entire annual fine particulate air pollution into the atmosphere in just one night. Last year, face-masks were advised.

Berlin is a city of over 3.5 million people - not including the thousands of tourists who swell the party - and there's no question of the firework-throwing tradition coming to an end.

After a deafening few hours of smoke-and-dazzle mayhem, New Year's Day usually dawns on an almost-silent city strewn with bottles, streamers and sooty cardboard, its streets and pavements scorched black by gunpowder.

This time, like the last, it will inevitably be "the same procedure as every year".

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