A master of the spoken word

Alistair Cooke knew how to write for the listener


April 04, 2004|By Jeffrey M. Landaw | Jeffrey M. Landaw,SUN STAFF

Alistair Cooke, who died Tuesday at 95, showed what a gifted person can do with a simple idea - or an idea that seems simple when you look back at it.

Cooke made his name in his native England beginning in the 1930s, covering the United States for the British Broadcasting Corp., the (Manchester) Guardian and other newspapers. He showed his touch early when he wrote of Greta Garbo: "She gave you the impression that if your imagination had to sin, it could at least congratulate itself on its impeccable taste." He became friends with H.L. Mencken when he contributed to Mencken's The American Language, and edited The Vintage Mencken in 1955. He covered the Alger Hiss case for the Guardian and in 1950 turned his work into a notable book, A Generation on Trial. He began to catch the broad American audience's attention in 1952, when he became the host of the new highbrow variety TV show Omnibus. (Jimmy Durante, announcing Cooke's Emmy for Omnibus in 1958, anticipated Sesame Street's "Monsterpiece Theater" by more than 20 years when he read Cooke's name as "Alistair Cookie.")

In the '70s, Cooke came into his own as an American brand name. He was the host of "Masterpiece Theatre" from its debut in 1971 until he retired in 1992. The 1973 TV series "America" won him an invitation to address Congress for the Bicentennial; the only other foreign-born recipients of such an honor were Lafayette and Churchill.

Besides his love for his adopted country and - as Andrew Sullivan, the conservative, gay, Catholic British expatriate essayist, put it on his Web log - the steel beneath Cooke's urbanity, Cooke owed his eminence as a broadcaster to his understanding of his medium. His biographer, Nick Clarke, observes that Cooke was writing differently for radio and newspapers as early as 1939, when he covered the corruption trial of a Tammany Hall leader named James J. Hines for the BBC and the London Times. But Cooke said his decisive experience came late in World War II.

Writing for talking

In a speech to the Royal Television Society on Dec. 3, 1997, Cooke recalled: "... [T]he BBC in New York invited various famous exiles, Frenchmen mostly, to come and talk to the underground in France - famous, famous, great literary men.

"And I had the privilege of sitting in the control room, and I thought that I will learn about broadcasting from listening to these men. ...

"What I learned is that they were dreadful broadcasters. They wrote essays, or lectures, or sermons, and they read them aloud. And I suddenly realized there was a new profession ahead. Which is writing for talking. Putting it on the page in the syntactical break-up and normal confusion that is normal talk."

Writing for talking. The idea seems almost too obvious. But it wasn't obvious at all in the '30s and '40s, when BBC announcers wore tuxedos to read the news, and sometimes it seems that it still isn't.

George Orwell, who himself worked briefly for the BBC during the war, got the point, too. In his 1944 essay "Propaganda and Demotic Speech," he observed: "Spoken English and written English are two different things. This variation exists in all languages, but is probably greater in English than in most. Spoken English is full of slang, it is abbreviated whenever possible, and people of all social classes treat its grammar and syntax in a slovenly way. ..."

Teasing the ear

Cooke was anything but slovenly, but he understood what it means to write for the ear instead of the eye. And he knew how much hard work goes into sounding casual.

"What you are trying to do," he wrote in the introduction to One Man's America, a collection of his BBC broadcasts published in 1952, "is nothing less than write literature for blind men. Thoughtfulness must be entertaining. Any meandering must be artful. Casualness must be calculated; if it is the real thing, it is dreadful. Each sentence must distribute the elements of suspense. Ideally, everything that is said must flatter, excite, or tease the ear."

Cooke also understood that spoken English translates to the page much better than written English translates to the ear. It is possible to read Cooke's Letters from America with pleasure as much as 50 years after they were written. Russell Baker, who succeeded Cooke as host of Masterpiece Theatre, never quite seemed to fit. (Watching Baker tell his audience that George Eliot's Middlemarch was really, really as good as Danielle Steel's or Tom Clancy's latest was enough to make any Baker fan cringe.)

But then, when Cooke took the audience through the world of Upstairs Downstairs, he was taking the viewers through the world in which he'd grown up. Baker was exposed to what was left of that world only briefly as London correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and the Masterpiece Theatre audience could only admire it from a distance.

While Cooke kept interpreting America to Britain until less than two months before his death, the Britain he interpreted to America seems to have disappeared. The news out of Britain these days, in literature and the arts as well as journalism, is mostly about squalid cities, menacing, inarticulate drunks and terrorist fifth columns - the squalor of, say, "I, Claudius" without the high style.

Cooke might not have liked that, but he wouldn't have flinched from reporting on it.

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