Same procedure as every year

Most repeated TV program ever a Christmastime favorite in Norway

Photo: NDR “Dinner for One” is a Christmas or New Year’s classic in much of the world, including Norway.

Photo: NDR
“Dinner for One” is a Christmas or New Year’s classic in much of the world, including Norway.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Each country that observes Christmas has its customs for the celebration of it. Aside from the cultural and religious ones, there’s entertainment of various sorts. Ask almost any resident of Norway, and you will learn that Christmastime entertainment begins on Lille juleaften, the evening of the day before Christmas Eve, with the showing of an 18-minute-long, more than 50-year-old black-and white television skit, with just two English actors, English sound, no subtitles, and a simple story that everyone knows by heart.

Known in Norwegian as “Grevinnen og hovmesteren” (The Countess and the Butler), it originally was recorded in a single take in 1963 by Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) (North Germany Broadcasting) and has been broadcast every year since 1980 in prime time on the evening of December 23. In Germany, Austria, and German-speaking Switzerland, it’s broadcast on New Year’s Eve. Elsewhere in Scandinavia as well as Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and as afar as South Africa and Australia, it’s broadcast at varying times during the Christmas holiday. The 1988-1995 editions of the Guinness Book of Records ranked it as the most repeated TV program ever (later editions of the book no longer have the category).

The skit takes place in the dining hall of an old English mansion, where Miss Sophie (played by May Warden), the last surviving member of a noble family, is celebrating her 90th birthday, with a dinner served by her loyal butler James (Freddie Frinton). As usual for the annual gathering, Miss Sophie has invited and had the table set for four dignified guests, all of whom apparently were older than herself, as they have long since passed away.

Butler James goes around the table serving wines, a different one for each course. As none of the guests are there in person, he obligingly empties their glasses with a toast to Miss Sophie. He becomes increasingly inebriated and staggers on his rounds. Miss Sophie remains oblivious to his odd gait and slurred speech. It’s British comedy at its best. But oddly, it’s nearly unknown in Britain or North America.

In all the countries where it is regularly broadcast, it has acquired a cult following. Some of the spoken phrases of it have entered other languages, untranslated. Two of them, James’s question “Same procedure as last year?” and Miss Sophie’s reply, “Same procedure every year, James!” have become catchphrases in Norwegian as well as in German, used in advertisements, newspaper headlines, and everyday conversation.

Further reading and viewing:
• Video of original 1963 Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) program, with brief introduction in German read by Hans Piper:

• Script:

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 8, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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