Alistair Cooke has been broadcaster, journalist for more than 50 years

MR. MASTERPIECE THEATER

January 20, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

Washington

Charming, graceful, supremely eloquent and erudite, a bit stooped but otherwise amazingly youthful for a man who's 82, Alistair Cooke seems exactly as advertised in his role of gracious host on public television's "Masterpiece Theatre."

Except for one thing.

In person, the venerable, expatriate British journalist, who has been an American citizen since 1941, can also be -- surprise! -- a bit snappish.

"I hope you're not going to take 180 pictures," he admonishes a photographer at the start of an interview. "Photographers used to be able to set up a tripod, take one picture and it was splendid." He follows up the remark with a little riff on the "cliches" of photography, a mini-lecture delivered in that familiar and unmistakable voice, the one that sounds like honey flowing over English cream.

Of course, there is nothing for an interviewer (and photographer) to do but wait out the brief cloud of mild irritation and hope for the early arrival of the sunny, genial man, who, sitting in a comfy wing chair, appears regularly in our living rooms via the television screen.

And, sure enough, that Alistair Cooke appears before long. And he does not disappoint.

With his wife settled into a hotel suite upstairs, downstairs in a borrowed suite Mr. Cooke holds forth -- as only he can. A conversation with this journalist and broadcaster, whose career spans more than half a century, includes fascinating stories -- and fascinating digressions from those stories -- on jazz (he is an excellent jazz pianist), politics, "Sesame Street," literature, golf, peanut butter and, of course, television.

It is television that has brought him to Washington on this mild January day to attend a reception celebrating "Masterpiece Theatre's" 20th anniversary on the air. Since the show began broadcasting in January 1971, Mr. Cooke has been its only host.

Indeed, for most viewers, the sight and sound of the silver-haired, silver-tongued Alistair Cooke holding forth from a wing chair is "Masterpiece Theatre."

"I'm the headwaiter. I indicate what's coming up on the menu," is the way he describes his role on the PBS show, which airs locally at 9 p.m. Sundays on MPT (Channels 67 and 22).

Of course, it is much, much more than that.

What Alistair Cooke does on "Masterpiece Theatre" is what he's been doing for much of his long career: interpreting the English to their American cousins.

"He's become our trademark," says the show's executive producer, Rebecca Eaton. "He sort of invented that role, the role of presenter and recapper and putter-in-context -- particularly putting things in context for Americans. He knows what Americans know and don't know, and what needs to be explained to an American audience."

His explanations of the way things worked between the masters and servants in an Edwardian household held millions of Americans spellbound in 1972 when "Masterpiece Theatre" ran its Emmy-winning series, "Upstairs, Downstairs."

Mr. Cooke says he decided recently that "Upstairs, Downstairs" is his favorite.

"For many years I've said that my favorite 'Masterpiece Theatre' was 'The Golden Bowl' -- the Henry James, which was four parts. But I looked at it again and it's not so. I think 'Upstairs, Downstairs' is unique. It's so beautifully crafted and so true to those types of people and the way they talk and their view of life. I mean, I've known everybody in 'Upstairs, Downstairs' -- from Ruby up to Richard Bellamy," says Mr. Cooke, singling out a downstairs maid and upstairs master in the 55-part series.

Other favorites, he says, include "To Serve Them All My Days," "Danger UXB" and "Therese Raquin."

And does he have a least favorite? "Oh, yes," he says amiably, leaning back into the cushion of a very un-winglike, overstuffed white sofa. "The one I positively disliked was 'After the War.' Did not like that at all."

And, yes, of course, he says, it is harder to write an introduction to a piece you don't like.

"That's where you really revert to your role as headwaiter. You're not saying, 'This is an appalling piece of fish. Don't have it.' " And here he stops, breaking into laughter. Then he leans forward -- the white sofa begins to form itself into a wing chair -- and in his best "Masterpiece Theatre" voice, he continues with his explanation of a headwaiter selling a dish to a diner: "Here's what you say. 'Well, now, tonight we have this with the bearnaise sauce. If you like bearnaise sauce, it's all right.' "

With that voice, with those eyes, whatever Alistair Cooke is selling, you're buying.

Those who know him only from "Masterpiece Theatre" might be surprised to learn he has written several highly regarded books, was chief U.S. correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) from 1948 to 1972 and made his first big television splash in the early 1950s on the award-winning television show, "Omnibus." Later in the early 1970s he embarked on the difficult task of explaining America to Americans in the Emmy-winning "America" series.

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