Bonn. BONN. In this column, the author looks at life in Germany, as a Brit who is living in Bonn for years. In this edition, he wonders why the proverbial prophet means nothing in his own land, when it comes to humour…
It may be hard to spot the connection between Freddie Frinton, an old, music hall British comedian who died 50 years ago and Henning Wehn, a stand-up comedian from North Rhine-Westphalia.
Both are funny men with their own unique, personal styles. But they are also comedians virtually unknown in their native countries with Freddie being loved like an icon in Germany and Henning beloved by many in his adopted UK.
I was reflecting upon this enigma as the Christmas and New Year’s festivities come rocking into view and the slight, sweaty-sock whiff of cheap gluhwein wafts through the winter air around Bonn’s Münsterplatz.
Everywhere the shops are filled with decorations and presents presumably somebody, somewhere wants while worried parents contemplate their imminent current account meltdown like a Lehman Brothers employee before the great economic and financial crisis of 2008.
But it is not all commercialization: For Germans, there is one moment in the calendar of sweet simplicity, escapism from George Michael and Wham’s Last Christmas CD and a balm against the frenzy; outrageous expense, expanding waistline and pretense to be having a good time with Tante Eva.
It is Freddie Frinton and his evergreen sketch ‘Dinner for One’, also starring May Warden, which was discovered by chance in the early 1960s by the German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld in the Northern English seaside town of Blackpool. He asked Frinton and Warden to perform it on his live TV show "Guten Abend, Peter Frankenfeld“ and the rest, as they say, is history.
The comedy routine, actually shown in original English, has been broadcast on German networks nonstop on New Year’s Eve since the early 1970s. It is said to be the most popular TV show ever repeated with anticipation building in around half of all German homes shortly after Weihnachten.
For those that have never seen it — and that means everyone, or almost pretty much everyone in the UK — it is a black-and-white, 11 minute-long, slap-stick comedy in which the British actor plays a butler in the country house of a ‘Miss Sophie’ who is celebrating her 90th birthday.
The sketch is centered around the fact that she has outlived her friends, but they have empty chairs at the table representing them.
Freddie Frinton (a teetotaler in real life) is required to impersonate the long-gone guests, drink their toasts to Miss Sophie and get progressively plastered while still serving dinner and tripping not so elegantly over the head of an old tiger skin.
The catch-phrase, which I am reliably told most Germans can recite, is ‘same procedure as last year?’ before the pair eventually run upstairs to the bedroom.
Sounds funny, er, um…. well, the Germans love it: Yet (sorry) I am still struggling to force a giggle or a guffaw while all around me there are grunts and ripples of mirth.
I have now heard zillions of explanations why ‘Dinner for One’ is such a phenomenon in Germany (and by the way apparently Austria and some Scandinavian countries).
These include bizarrely that it was about teaching Germans proper dinner etiquette; it features senior-citizen sex before the invention of Viagra or that it stereotypes the British upper classes as pig-headed, irrelevant, drunks.
Perhaps they are all true in their own unique and personal way or perhaps it is the last great mystery of European integration, assuming you want to get all philosophical and teary-eyed about Britain’s last year in the EU.
The BBC recently asked people on the streets of Britain about the show and found no one who knew it with one young man asking if ‘Dinner for One’ was a new production — the show and Freddie are invisible, even in his hometown of Grimsby, Lincolnshire.
I suspect that could also be said of Henning Wehn on the streets of his hometown Hagen. For 15 years since moving to the UK and trying stand-up at an open mic evening, he has dubbed himself provocatively the ‘German Comedy Ambassador’ to the UK.
Henning’s theatre tours are often sell-outs in Britain and he is a regular on the BBC including game shows and comedy quizzes.
One of my favorites is probably Henning Wehn’s Tourism Guide to Germany where he laughs at British inefficiency versus German efficiency including respect to trains, autobahns, building workers and other clichés.
Why is Henning a hit in the UK? —because he is unique in Britain. Someone from abroad taking on the British at one of the last things they still believe they are world champions in: comedy.
And the kicker is he comes from the very country that is stereotyped world-wide as being a desert for humour and a by-word for rod-like seriousness.
It goes beyond that: Henning also politely and with a twinkle in his eye pokes fun at Britain’s obsession with its so-called finest hour — the Second World War — and does it to a generation that is ready to have this satirized and exorcised while also poking fun at his own nation.
He tells a TV quiz show host that he supports UKIP, the British nationalistic, right-wing party because: “They are serious about implementing Otto Von Bismark’s 19C policy of isolating Britain.”
It is very special, refreshing and done with a great deal of charm.
‘German literature is the best literature in the world,’ he affirms in one of his sketches and proceeds to discuss his favourite book — the Berlin Yellow Pages — which, unlike’ arty-farty British novels’, is packed with 1,560 pages of real information from ‘A to Z’.
‘Dinner for One’ maybe a must for the German festive period from Bonn to Berlin and Wiesbaden to Weisswasser. But my Silvester staple is Henning Wehn and his gentle mockery of both nations — perhaps all he needs is a tiger rug and a line like ‘same procedure every year’ to get a little slot on the ARD TV schedule.