Alistair Cooke's show turns 50 American "Letter": More than 2,000 scripts later, Alistair Cooke is still explaining America to Britain in his weekly BBC radio program.

Sun Journal

March 24, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - It began March 24, 1946, with a polite "Good evening," followed by a simple sentence.

Alistair Cooke said: "I want to tell you what it's like to come back to the United States after a sobering month or more in Britain, and what daily life feels and looks like in comparison."

Fifty years and more than 2,000 scripts later, Mr. Cooke is still writing and presenting his "Letter from America" for the British Broadcasting Corp.

The 15-minute radio program is wonderfully old-fashioned. Just a man speaking into a microphone, explaining the ways of his adopted country. Mr. Cooke, 87, British-born, is the last of a breed, a radio broadcaster whose drawing-room voice is recognized around the world. His often-repeated aim is to touch the hearts and minds of a Dorset bus driver and a Yorkshire housewife.

In America, his avuncular style became familiar to television viewers of the cultural program "Omnibus," the landmark historical documentary "America" and "Masterpiece Theatre."

A few years ago, Mr. Cooke relinquished his spot in the study on "Masterpiece Theatre," handing off the role of drama guide to Russell Baker, the New York Times columnist and former Baltimore Sun reporter.

But Mr. Cooke didn't slide into retirement. Every Thursday, he sits at a manual typewriter in his New York apartment and bangs out a letter that is later dotted with handwritten corrections. He then takes a cab ride to the British Broadcasting Corp.'s studios, where he reads the letter in that familiar, deadpan style.

He once told an interviewer, "The easier it sounds the harder it is to do."

Mr. Cooke tells a story of a country. The big shots don't interest him much. His heart remains with cab drivers and construction workers.

A million Britons tune in

More than a million Britons tune in to hear him Sunday morning and that's for a repeat broadcast. Among his fans are politicians and royals.

"The 'Letter' is a relic from a bygone age," says Nick Clarke, a BBC broadcaster who is writing a biography of Mr. Cooke.

Mr. Cooke declined most interview requests leading to today's 50th anniversary. He apparently prefers to let his letters, books and previous interviews do his talking for him. And there are a lot of words to choose from. When Mr. Cooke started the program, Harry Truman was in the White House and King George VI was on the English throne.

"He gives a warm-hearted impression of America, with occasional dire warnings about the way you are going," Mr. Clarke says. "He avoids some of the less attractive parts of America. He doesn't focus very hard on those difficult areas. He prefers to give a more off-beat and disarming view, the sort of lives people lead, rather than the lives led by politicians. He sews things together in a way no one else can."

Born in 1908, educated at Jesus College in Cambridge, Mr. Cooke grew up in another media age, when a young person with zeal and a way with words could carve out a career in a hurry. He was 25 when he joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic.

His beat for the past half-century could be described in a word: America.

Mr. Cooke's passion for America was ignited during the Depression. Studying drama as a winner of a Commonwealth Fellowship, Mr. Cooke traveled throughout the country in the summer of 1933. He was startled by the landscape and the people. In 1941, he became a U.S. citizen.

"You see, from then on my interest in the theater began to wane, and I began to take up what I felt was the real drama going on namely, America itself," he once said.

Like a lot of journalists in Britain, Mr. Cooke has floated freely from print to radio to television, filing columns for newspapers and magazines and writing several books, including an acclaimed study of the Alger Hiss case, "A Generation On Trial."

He met a lot of greats at a young age, working for Charlie Chaplin for two summers after somehow wangling an interview with the great man.

Later, Mr. Cooke would befriend a personal hero, H. L. Mencken, whom he recalled as a "serene little man with the pot-blue eyes and genial manners, and nothing cocky about him except the angle of his cigar." The elder Baltimorean an outspoken Anglophobe and the young Englishman shared a love of language.

In the book "Six Men," Mr. Cooke writes that Mencken "taught me, what I confirmed many times on the road, that there is no such thing as ideological truth and that, to the extent that a reporter is a Liberal reporter or a Communist reporter or a Republican reporter, he is no reporter at all."

Mr. Cooke revels in details others might overlook. In his first letter the year after the end of World War II, he wrote of leaving Britain aboard an ocean liner filled with thousands of war brides, "weeping like mad" and waving handkerchiefs "in an unbroken line, like washing day in Manchester or Leeds."

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