Alistair Cooke
[ Issue 4 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of Alistair Cooke’s many fans

Bikwil salutes Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke and His Letter from America

In this article Tony Rogers praises Alistair Cooke's Letter from America, the longest running one-man series in broadcasting history — a radio programme that began in 1946 and is still running. 

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Transatlantic Messages — Tony Rogers


Born in Manchester in 1908, the son of a metal craftsman and lay preacher, he was educated at Cambridge, Yale and Harvard. He joined the BBC as a journalist in 1934. In 1937 he moved permanently to New York, continuing to report for the BBC on U.S. politics, and after 1939 on the American perspective on World War II.

After the war the BBC Director of the Spoken Word suggested:

Why don't you start a series about — well, all the things in American life you've talked to me about: anything and everything?

Thus, in March 1946, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America was born, but with this proviso:

Even if your Letter is a sensational success, we cannot finance it beyond two series, namely, twenty-six weeks.

Not quite a six-month assignment, though, was it? Letter from America is the longest running one-man series in broadcasting history, heard in over 50 countries. He’s been at it now for over 51 years. How long can he keep it up? You see, about this time next year — all being well — he will turn 90.

Alistair Cooke and his wife, portrait painter Jane White, live in New York City and Long Island. It is long ago now that Cooke became an American citizen (1941), but in all those years he has faded neither from the airwaves in England nor the hearts of the English, and in 1973 he was made an honorary KBE, to honour "his outstanding contribution to Anglo-American mutual understanding".

Some of the Letters have found their way into essay anthologies. They make ideal essays, too, for that intimate yet scholarly and digressive yet well-directed literary genre shares much with the style, length and format of Cooke’s unique radio broadcasts.

Described by Booklist as “an international treasure”, Cooke has also written numerous books, including Alistair Cooke's America, A Generation on Trial, Fun & Games with Alistair Cooke (on sport — he’s a mad golf fan) and The Vintage Mencken (as editor).

Alistair Cooke's America is a particular favourite of mine. It is the Letter writ large, and is in fact the text of a TV series he made for the BBC. The book was a best-seller in the United States in 1973.

In the U.S. he also became well known to millions of Americans as the host of the pioneer cultural television program Omnibus, and later as the host of Masterpiece Theatre.

In 1990, the North America Center of the Royal Television Society instituted an annual address which they named The Alistair Cooke Lecture. Each lecture concerns some aspect of television. The inaugural speaker was Robert MacNeil, who retired in 1996 as co-anchor of the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (seen in Australia on weeknights on SBS TV). In 1994 the speaker was Australian-born Robert Hughes.

A double cassette album of some of Cooke’s early broadcasts of Letter from America (1947-68), selected by Cooke himself, was issued by the BBC in 1993. You can buy it from any ABC shop. Listen, for example, to the graceful way he presents his information in A Baby Is Missing (1950) or Alcatraz (1959) or Watts 1965. A lot of the pleasure is Cooke’s voice, of course. Mind you, because once heard it’s never forgotten, to read Alistair Cooke's America, say, carries the same magic resonance. As The Times put it, “Mr Cooke reads as well as he sounds”.

Indeed, many laudatory epithets have been used over the last half-century to describe Alistair Cooke’s presentation in his Letter. Believe me, they all apply. Absolutely marvellous stuff, every sentence he utters: urbane, charming, informed, informal, shrewd, erudite, witty, perceptive, enlightening, elegant.

In late 1996 Cooke suddenly ran foul of special powers-that-be, possibly for the first time ever. I am indebted to John Corry of The American Spectator for the following information, which I found on the Internet.

It seems that Cooke was commenting on recent sexual harassment scandals in the U.S. Army, and remarked that “the men had shown remarkable restraint”. Immediately, certain British radical feminists leapt to the attack, demanding an inquiry . . . the BBC launched an internal investigation.

John Corry continues:

The 88-year-old Cooke had not advocated rape, of course. He only had pointed out, in his civilized way, that when the Army puts young men and women into unisex quarters, sensible people know what will happen. It is unlikely the BBC will now can him for this -- Cooke is a popular fixture . . .

Speaking of radio Aunties, by the way, the ABC is the place where we Australians can enjoy Cooke’s weekly broadcast. You have several choices on Sydney Radio National: Tuesday 11.45 am, Sunday 1.45 pm and 7.10 pm.

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