Cooke and his 20-year Masterpiece


January 17, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- Alistair Cooke can pinpoint the day he got the call about hosting a new show that was to take the best of British dramatic television and put it on PBS every week.

"I remember the date very vividly," Cooke said at a press event here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show that came to be called Masterpiece Theatre. "It was Oct. 5, 1970.

"It is my son's birthday, and it was the first day we did any filming on my history of America series that was called 'America.' "

Cooke remembered coming back to his hotel in Boston and seeing a huge headline about the death of Janis Joplin.

"It said that her manager had found her and had said that a doctor and coroner had come in and found that it was a drug overdose. And he said no more.

"And I was mightily relieved because her manager was my son. It took me about two hours to get hold of him on the phone as you can imagine. And, as he said, what a birthday present. So, it was a very vivid day."

Cooke dismissed the possibility of hosting this proposed series because he was so busy with "America." He accepted the job when the Boston station that produces it, WGBH, begged him in near-panic a few weeks later. For the first couple of years, he came in from various locations for "America" every few weeks to record the introductions in Boston.

"I remember showing my first contract to a friend in the television business," Cooke said. "He was used to everything being for 13 weeks and was stunned that this one was for three years."

Now, two decades later, Cooke is best-known in this country for highly literate, often witty and always appropriate introductory spots that precede, and occasionally follow, the episodes of Masterpiece Theatre.

But Cooke is quick to point out that across the world, he has much greater fame for a weekly 15-minute commentary he does on America for the BBC.

"I get scores of letters every week from something like 50 countries and maybe one of them is about Masterpiece Theatre," he said, adding that officials from WGBH, "of course, don't like to hear that."

The on-air commemoration of the 20th anniversary started last Sunday with a repeat of three episodes of "Upstairs, Downstairs," the program that really put Masterpiece Theatre on the map of America's consciousness. It's the series that is Cooke's favorite among the more than 100 productions that have aired.

"I was once at a party and two senators were talking to the great diplomat, George Kennan," Cooke said. "He said he was doing research on English diplomacy before World War I and that he had come across one document that showed that it was the upper classes that cracked under the pressure, not the working class.

"And these senators leaned forward in curiousity as to what this was, and he said, 'Upstairs, Downstairs.' It's still the best of them, though I have other favorites. 'To Serve Them All My Days' I think was my second favorite."

This Sunday, Masterpiece Theatre will air an episode of "The Flame Trees of Thika" with repeats of episodes from other favorites -- including "I, Claudius," "Elizabeth R," "The Jewel in the Crown" and "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" -- to follow. It all builds to a birthday celebration March 24 that will include a hilarious musical parody called "Masterpiece Tonight."

Cooke writes and memorizes all of his introductions, refusing to use a teleprompter, claiming that at 82, memorizing them keeps that part of his brain exercised.

But he seems to understand how fleeting is the fame that Masterpiece Theatre has brought him.

'I don't know how many years ago I was in London and an American called me up, wanted to see me on a pressing matter," Cooke said. "He sounded charming, very nice, so he came round to tea. And his name was Jim Henson and he said he'd thought of this parody character for 'Sesame Street.'"

Henson went on to describe the idea for Monsterpiece Theatre hosted by the Cookie Monster going under the name Alistair Cookie.

"I said that was fine, all right with me. Little did I think that it would turn out that Jim Henson was probably the greatest entertainer in the history of the world -- 137 nations have taken 'Sesame Street,'" Cooke said.

He described an incident at an airport a month ago when a little girl of about 6, urged by her mother, came up to him and asked if he was Alistair Cookie, the Cookie Monster.

"I said, 'I am.' And she ran screaming. So I think that 50 years from now, when names of all current journalists and television stars have been forgotten, there'll be some old lady saying, 'I once met Alistair Cookie, the Cookie Monster.'"

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