A man of letters... how Alistair Cooke took us on a journey around America

Alistair Cooke.  Photo:  Cooke Americas, RLLP
Alistair Cooke. Photo: Cooke Americas, RLLP
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Alistair Cooke’s archive, the longest-running speech programme in broadcast history, is now available to all. Sheena Hastings reports.

THERE are a few people who are more than worth breaking the rules and getting into trouble for. As a young teenager in the mid-70s, I climbed over a wall and missed double biology to jump on a bus into Manchester and meet my hero, a man whose silken voice and the way it told its story had already left an indelible print on my mind.

From as far back as I could remember, we children didn’t dare scrape a spoon across a bowl during the 15 minutes of the week when Letter from America shrank the globe and took us close to that glamorous faraway land. As youngsters we might not always have understood the subtleties of his tales and the way he could see universality in the particularities of everyday events – but the conversational tone, the brilliant command of language and evocation of American life kept us rapt.

Detentions were a small price to pay for having absconded to a downtown bookshop to meet Salford-born Cooke, who signed my precious copy of America: A Personal History, raised an quizzical eyebrow at my hideous bottle green uniform and inquired whether I shouldn’t really be at school. I blushed and mumbled something about this being my lunch-hour. The truth was that I’d probably have walked barefoot to Liverpool and cleaned prefects’ gym shoes for a month to breathe the same air as the man who has been the single biggest influence on my own (and probably many other people’s) ambition to become a journalist.

Cooke’s first Letter from America, in March 1946, was to be the first of 2,869 such broadcasts spanning 58 years. His aim was to explain America to the UK and the suspicious wider world, In his own words: “... The stress will always be on the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines, rather than the headlines themselves.”

In a long career during which he also wrote many books and presented a long-running drama series on US TV, Cooke missed only three weeks of the Letter before retiring in 2004, a month before his death at the age of 95.

Regarded as one of the greatest broadcasters, his range was extraordinary: art, politics, sport, social and cultural upheaval – little was beyond his sharp eye, elegant prose and profoundly reassuring tone. He often took listeners on a journey to the America that lay between the metropolitan hotspots of New York, Washington and LA, and he absolutely had his finger on the pulse of what interested Britons about America.

A simple story about a deranged black girl stealing a tiny baby from a hospital after the stillbirth of her own twins spoke volumes about the state of race relations in the US – and brought Cooke the biggest mailbag for any of his broadcasts; an examination of the fad diet market and its origins in the food shortages that followed the Great War took the listener on a trip via the vitamin industry, the depressed state of US orange growers and temperance.

Although he took US citizenship early on and became respected as a fixture of the American arts and media scene, his greatest weapon was that he was an immigrant, forever casting an eye over events from a slight distance.

It’s not hyperbolic to say that Alistair Cooke changed immeasurably the average middle-class Briton’s perception of America and its people. His mellifluous voice brought two nations divided by a common language closer together.

He was sometimes accused by the highbrow of being lightweight – a slight easily aimed at someone with the gift of taking complex matters and making them clear and taking apparently simple subjects and showing why they matter,

We won’t see his like again, but now the BBC has decided to open up to the public a new online archive of 920 of Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America. After months spent transferring older formats to digital, the archive has been launched in time for tomorrow’s US presidential election and to celebrate the BBC’s 90th birthday.

The launch is part of a wider move to make Radio 4, the jewel in the crown of BBC radio, into an online information and entertainment service as well as a broadcasting station. The aim is to provide a “bigger Radio 4” by improving access to the station’s vast speech, news and drama archives, as advances in technology make areas other than daily schedules increasingly important to the corporation’s output. The opening up of archives will make it possible for listeners to tailor-make their own schedule of listening by linking contemporary stories and themes to related material from the station’s vast back catalogue, which is rapidly being digitised.

Zillah Watson, who oversaw the digitisation of the precious broadcasting treasure trove of Letters from America, has worked for the BBC for 12 years and her usual job is as head of editorial compliance – ensuring that all programmes meet broadcast rules and regulations.

“The reason I wanted to work on this project, which took many months, was that I felt very strongly that the archive should be readily available to everyone and technology now makes that possible. The general public will enjoy going back to Alistair’s incomparable stories, as will anyone with an interest in studying US history.”

The 700-plus hours of material can be searched by date or subject matter or genre, says Watson. “It has been a complete joy to go back over the Letters and realise that right at the beginning, when he first broadcast, while everyone else on the radio spoke in stuffy tones he was talking in easy, conversational English that drew listeners in. He really got what radio was about – it should be like talking to a friend.”

To accompany the LFA archive, Radio 4 and BBC World Service will broadcast the four-part In Alistair Cooke’s Footsteps, a series presented by Alvin Hall, in which he travels across America to find out whether Cooke’s Letters are still relevant today. Hall, an American financial educator, author and broadcaster, tests Cooke’s insights and observations on subjects as diverse as desegregation, jazz, isolationism and immigration.

He discovers that Cooke remains as fresh as he was when he wrote at an old typewriter in his Manhattan apartment over many decades then read his words fluently and nearly always in one take, at the BBC’s New York studio.

Hall and his producer Bill Law took a road trip from Manhattan to Pittsburgh then Chicago. They flew onward to New Orleans and Washington and took the train back to New York City – visiting some of the places that had featured regularly in Letter from America and re-examining themes that had often preoccupied Cooke.

“The Letter he broadcast just after the assassination of JFK, when he talked about the disappointment of a nation in not having seen what Kennedy could really do and the paralysis of the people at the cutting down of a leader who had not yet reached his prime as a president had resonances with Barack Obama,” says Law. “The resonance lies in that theme of unfulfilled promise.

“One of Alistair Cooke’s great loves was jazz, and in New Orleans we revisited the spiritual home of two musicians he loved – Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, about whom he wrote very beautiful and poignant Letters following their death.

“We reached the overwhelming conclusion that many of the observations Alistair made about the changing face of America were equally relevant today.

“He was an extraordinary journalist and performer. He was respected and admired, and no doors were closed to him. His accent was a huge asset in America, but beyond it there was an acute intellect working at full throttle.”

The Letter From America Archive: bbc.co.uk/letterfromamerica

In The Footsteps of Alistair Cooke will run on Tuesdays from tomorrow at 9.30am on BBC Radio 4.

Lifelong love of the US

Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) was born in Salford, the son of a metal worker. The family moved to Blackpool and Alistair went to Blackpool Grammar School, then won a scholarship to Cambridge to study English.

After graduation, he attended Yale and Harvard on a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship, falling in love with America.

His first job with the BBC was as a film critic, but he was also London correspondent for US network NBC, recording a weekly talk on life in Britain.

In 1937, he moved to the US and reported on American life during the war. The first American Letter (it became Letter from America in 1950) was broadcast in March 1946.