We are now coming to that time of the year when almost the entire population of Germany and Scandinavia and even South Africa and Austria sits down to watch an English television programme that hardly anyone in Britain has ever heard of, let alone seen.
The time? New Year's Eve.
And the programme? Dinner For One.
It lasts eighteen minutes, and was recorded in English for German television in 1963. Only two actors are involved, the comedian Freddie Frinton and a veteran British actress called Mary Warden. Frinton is the butler; Warden is the elderly lady getting all her old friends together at Christmas time, forgetting that they are all dead.
In their absence, Frinton as the butler has to pretend to be them all, and to drink all their drinks, and to try to disguise his increasing drunkenness as the meal progresses.
Basically, that's it.
A sketch about propriety (the butler) encountering impropriety (sherry, wine, champagne, port), losing gradual control to it and creating sheer magic out of it. I believe that Frinton was teetotal himself, but it's still the funniest drunk act I have ever seen.
It turned out on Christmas Day that most of my visiting family members had never seen it, and would all be scattered to the four winds and back home by New Year's Eve, so we all decided to watch it this very Christmas Day in the evening and I dug out my bootleg copy of it.
Full house in the sitting room and eighteen minutes of pure joy all round.
Which was a relief, come to think of it, because you never know whether what you think is funny will stand up for other people, or indeed will stand up a second time for you and it would have been eighteen minutes of golden embarrassment for me if it had misfired.
I have been there when things misfired. I remember discovering after thirty years that my step-daughter had never seen or heard any Tony Hancock, so we sat her down to watch The Blood Donor. She has a fabulous sense of humour. She didn't laugh once. "I don't get it," she said. Mark you, her mother also has a great sense of humour and has never once laughed at Fawlty Towers, which she thinks is one of the nastiest programmes ever made, and relies entirely on unkindness for all the jokes.
I think she may be right, too. I know other people who hate Little Britain and Steptoe and Son and The Goon Show.
And there are some shows which you will never see again, and which you can never be quite sure were as good as they seemed at the time. Over the years, as part of the cabaret group Instant Sunshine, I have performed at the Edinburgh Fringe about ten times, and seen loads of very funny shows, from Eddie Izzard's first great appearance there to the appallingly wonderful Gerry Sadowitz, but the funniest thing I ever saw at Edinburgh was a one-man show by Chris Langham.
How long ago? Not sure. Twelve years at least. But I easily remember his attempt to balance his thumb upright without it falling over. Wonderful. I can remember him saying to the lady in the front row, as he opened a pack of eight pork sausages: "Madam, I am going to shuffle these sausages and ask you to choose one, and then to memorise it and put it back in the pack". I remember him suddenly saying: "And now the moment you've all been waiting for" and pausing for five seconds till saying: "Well, that was it", and carrying on.
Oh, and him saying that it would now be a good time for an exhibition of hand-thrown pottery, at which someone in the wings tossed a mug across the stage which shattered on the floor. Oh, and him doing a very funny routine about that little bobble which you find on top of a French beret.
I have never met Chris Langham. I know it has been a bad year for him, so it might be a comfort to him to know that someone somewhere (me) thinks that that hour of his onstage was one of the high points of his (my) life.Reuse content