Mike Frinton was on a ferry sailing across Sydney Harbour when he chanced upon a familiar looking TV show. In the short film, the heads of German chancellor Angela Merkel and then French president Nicolas Sarkozy had been superimposed onto vintage footage of a butler serving dinner to his elderly mistress. As he is forced to pretend to be the other four guests to keep his mistress happy, necking four courses of red and white wine and other drinks as he goes, the butler becomes increasingly inebriated.
As a satirical comment on the uneasy relationship between two European states regarding the Euro, this was amusing enough. Frinton, however, was taken aback by the fact that behind the politicians’ heads was Dinner for One, a sketch which had been filmed by a German TV company in 1963. Since then, the recording of the sketch had gone on to become an institution that is still broadcast in Germany every New Year’s Eve. Dinner for One has even entered the Guinness Book of Book of Records as the most repeated programme in television history. More to the point for Frinton, the man playing the butler opposite actress May Warden was his father, music hall comedian and TV sit-com actor Freddie Frinton.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” says Mike Frinton, the youngest of four children from Frinton senior’s second marriage, “but that’s the sort of effect Dinner for One has had. So many amateur groups do it, and in Germany there are restaurants that do set meals around what they eat in the sketch.”
Frinton is in Scotland this weekend to watch what is remarkably the first ever UK cinema screening of Dinner for One. This forms part of the Campbeltown-based Scottish Comedy Film Festival’s Slapstick Weekend, where the film will be shown twice as part of two double bills that top and tail the programme. The first screening will see Dinner for One paired with Buster Keaton’s The General, before being shown again on Sunday alongside the Marx Bros in Duck Soup.
“Dad adored Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin,” says Frinton, “so I think he’d be very proud to know that his film was being shown alongside one of his films.”
Dinner for One was written by playwright Lauri Wylie in the 1920s. Grimsby-born Frinton first performed it in 1945, paying Wylie a royalty up until his death before purchasing the rights to the sketch himself. Frinton’s performance was seen in Blackpool by German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinze Dunkhase, and Dinner for One was staged as part of Frankenfeld’s live show before being filmed in front of a live audience.
While it was shown occasionally following its original broadcast, Dinner for One only became an institution in 1972 when it was broadcast in its now annual New Year’s Eve slot. Frinton and his mother only belatedly discovered the international phenomenon his father’s work had become.
“We weren’t aware of it,” he says. “My mum wasn’t even receiving royalties until she changed Dad’s agent, and they rang up one day and told her that this was happening and that some money had come in.”
The first broadcast of Dinner for One had been on Mike Frinton’s ninth birthday. He only realised this after a set of commemorative stamps were issued in Germany featuring images of his father alongside the date.
“I remember waving him off,” says Frinton. “He’d hired a trailer to take all his props gubbins, and my mum went over with him. I think my sisters might have done as well, but my nan looked after me while they went off.”
Frinton was fourteen when his father passed away in 1968 aged just 59. By this time he had almost given up show-business, but had a late bloom appearing opposite Thora Hird in TV sit-com Meet the Wife.
“He was about to jack it all in,’ says Frinton. “A lot of theatres were being turned into bingo halls, and the work wasn’t there anymore, but the great comedian Arthur Haynes, who’d given Dad his first job performing on Cleethorpes sands, gave him a walk-on as a drunk. He did summer season with Thora Hird, and they worked so well together that they ended up doing a Comedy Playhouse called The Bed that became Meet the Wife.”
Growing up in a showbiz household was full of incident and colour for the youngest Frinton, even if he didn’t see much of his father.
“My earliest memory of Dad was seeing him on telly in The Good Old Days, and waving at the telly thinking he could see me,” says Frinton. “Because of the nature of what he did, he wasn’t around very often. He’d be doing summer season or pantomime in Bradford, but he’d always try to get back every Sunday to make us breakfast.”
Frinton later got a taste of the show-business side of his father’s life.
“I loved going backstage and watching him put on his make-up and big dresses,” he says. “All the other kids’ dads would go off and work in offices, but for me seeing Dad like that seemed perfectly normal. Jimmy Edwards was a good friend of his, and I remember going to Bruce Forsyth’s dressing room, but Dad wasn’t flamboyant like them. He didn’t go to parties or network in any way. Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck would be off playing golf, but Dad wasn’t like that. He was quiet. Not depressive in any way, but not madcap either. He was fun.”
But what is it about Dinner for One that has made it such a beloved institution in Germany and elsewhere?
“I think they see it as quintessentially English,” says Frinton. “Here’s this old lady hanging on to her colonial friends, and it’s almost become like the Queen’s speech. Just as you can’t get on with Christmas Day without watching that, in Germany you can’t get on with New Year’s Eve without seeing Dinner for One. There’s maybe something as well about making alliances in that post Second World War period.”
The Dinner for One screenings in Campbeltown mark a belated recognition for Frinton. A blue plaque dedicated to him was unveiled in Cleethorpes two years ago. Meanwhile, a museum devoted to Frinton is about to open in the German fishing town of Bremerhaven, which is twinned with Grimsby. Mike Frinton would like his father’s legacy recognised closer to home.
“Paul Merton paid Dad a very nice compliment on a radio programme about comic timing,” he says, “and that was nice coming from someone from a different generation like him.”
Whether this helps Dinner for One receive wider exposure in the UK remains to be seen.
“It would be nice if it was shown on national TV,” says Frinton. “We don’t know why it hasn’t, but it’s from a different time, I suppose. It wouldn’t have to be shown every year, but once would be lovely.”
Dinner for One is screened at Campbeltown Picture House in a double bill with The General tomorrow at 5.30pm, then on Sunday in a double bill with Duck Soup at 12.30pm. Full details of the Scottish Comedy Film Festival and Slapstick Weekend can be found at www.campbeltownpicturehouse.co.uk
The Herald, November 22nd 2018