some eras of history significant individuals may serve as important
cultural and social links of communication between countries. In
the years after World War II and for many decades after Alistair
Cooke filled such a role. He served as British correspondent for
the BBC in the United States, and as host of both British and American
shows that revealed some of the finer aspects of American life.
British correspondent for the BBC, Cooke lived and reported on American
affairs, both political and cultural for half a century. In so doing,
he became a kind of 20th- century Alexis de Tocqueville--noting
those qualities of American life that only a foreigner could describe
with such unique insight. And as Tocqueville, in the early 19th
century, marveled over a land of wonders where everything was in
constant motion, Cooke observed American life with a similar precision,
but using tools common to his time, radio and television.
first notoriety was in Great Britain with his weekly series on the
BBC, Letter from America. The program continued for many
decades, providing British audiences with perspectives unavailable
from other sources and perhaps some appreciation for the American
ethic. But his real influence came with his efforts to bring a refinement
to American television. The program was Omnibus and Cooke
served as host and narrator. The program turned out to be the longest
running cultural series on U.S. commercial television. First seen
on CBS in 1953, the show was scheduled for late afternoon and early
evening on Sundays. In the era before Sunday afternoon/evening football
and other sports Omnibus served as a respite from the commercial
chatter of the week days. It offered time to reflect in a non-hurried
pace on the cultural, historical and artistic heritage of American
society, aspects of American life rarely noticed by television.
Omnibus moved to ABC, which scheduled the program from 9:00-10:00
P.M. on Sunday. Yet later, NBC picked up the series and programmed
it earlier, on Sunday afternoons. Cooke remained the host on one
of the few programs that made the rounds to all three commercial
networks. Although the program never achieved high ratings, it proved
that a portion of the American television audiences could appreciate
program elements different from most television fare, elements traditionally
thought of as part of high culture. Omnibus ended in 1957,
having established an image of thoughtfulness and wisdom for Cooke
and earned him enormous respect.
returned as narrator and sometimes writer for the NBC program, America.
The program, a series of 13 one-hour documentaries, told the fascinating
story of the growth of a country from its inception during Colonial
times into the then-current scene of the 1970s. Cooke regarded the
series as a "personal history of America," and he told it in a way
that was both entertaining as well as educational. He made it a
point to examine events, individuals, locations, and controversies
from both close and distant perspectives. He insisted on being on
the scene, walking the paths where history was made. We see his
face, we look at his hands handling objects; it was, indeed, a personal
history. It carried his trademarks, his reminiscences, his feelings
about his memories and his knowledge.
also insisted on producing for "the box," for television's small
screen. In order for television viewers to see the objects, there
were more close-ups. In order for them to understand concepts there
were more careful, unhurried examinations of ideas. Cooke brought
together the words, sights and sounds in a way that was to be recognized
by the industry: he won an Emmy Award in 1973 for "Individuals contributing
to Documentary Programs." Later America would run on public
television, one of the few programs originally produced for U.S.
commercial television to do so.
the meantime, America would overlap with Cooke's other appearances
on television--as host for a number of British productions shown
on U.S. public television under the umbrella title, Masterpiece
Theatre. The program premiered in the U.S. in 1971. Masterpiece
Theatre offered American viewers adaptations of British and
American novels (Jane Austen's Emma, Henry James' The
Golden Bowl, for example) as well as original productions such
as Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It
is often remembered for its popular continuing serials such as Upstairs,
Downstairs, which ran from 1974 until 1977.
was there as host who introduced the program, making a few off-the-cuff
observations about the style of the production of the ideas of British
culture found therein. He referred to his role on Masterpiece
Theater as "headwaiter." "I'm there to explain for interested
customers what's on the menu, and how the dishes were composed.
But I'm not the chef." Nevertheless, he won another Emmy Award for
his role on the program as "Special Classification of Outstanding
Program and Individual Achievement" in 1974. Cooke remained in this
role for twenty-two years, until 1992, when he retired at 83. He
planned at that time to continue producing his weekly BBC Letter
Photo courtesy of WBGH-Boston
ALFRED ALISTAIR COOKE. Born in Manchester, Lancashire, England,
20 November 1908; took U.S. citizenship, 1941. Attended Blackpool
Grammar School; Jesus College, Cambridge, B.A. in English, 1930;
Commonwealth Fund Fellow, Yale University, 1932-33; Harvard University,
1933-34. Married 1) Ruth Emerson in 1934; one son; 2) Jane White
Hawkes in 1946; one daughter. BBC film critic, 1934-37; BBC commentator
on U.S. affairs, from 1938; NBC London correspondent, 1936-37; special
correspondent on U.S. affairs for the London Times, 1938-42;
U.S. feature writer, Daily Herald, 1941-43; U.N. correspondent,
1945-48, and chief U.S. correspondent, 1948-72, Manchester Guardian;
best known for Letter from America, the world's longest-running
solo radio feature programme, first broadcast in 1946. Knight Commander
of the Order of the British Empire, 1973. Honor Fellow: Jesus College,
Cambridge, 1986. LLD: University of Edinburgh, 1969; University
of Manchester, 1973. Litt.D: St Andrew's University, 1976; Cambridge
University, 1988; Yale University, 1993. Recipient: Peabody Award
for International News Reporting, 1952, 1983; Writers' Guild of
Great Britain Award for Best Documentary, 1972; Society of Film
and Television Arts Dimbleby Award, 1973; Royal Society of Arts
Benjamin Franklin Medal, 1973; four Emmy Awards; Yale University
Howland Medal, 1977. Address: 1150 Fifth Avenue, New York City;
Nassau Point, Cutchogue, Long Island, New York, U.S.A.
1938-39 The March of Time (narrator)
1948 Sorrowful Jones (narrator)
1952-61 Omnibus (host)
1957 Three Faces of Eve (narrator)
1961-67 UN's International Zone programme (host and producer)
1971-92 Masterpiece Theater (host)
1972-73 America: A Personal History of the U.S. (writer and
1973 Hitler (narrator)
from America, 1946-.
and the Night Watchmen (editor). London: J. Cape, 1937.
Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character. New York: Museum
of Modern Art, 1940.
Generation on Trial: USA v Alger Hiss. New York: Knopf, 1950.
Eve. New York: Knopf, 1952.
A Commencement Address. New York: Knopf, 1954.
the World in Fifty Years. Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational
About America. London: Bodley Head, 1968.
Cooke's America. New York: Knopf, 1973.
American in Europe: From Emerson to S.J. Perelman: Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Men. London: Bodley Head, 1977.
London, with Robert Cameron. London: Bodley Head, 1980.
New York: Knopf, 1981.
Patient Has the Floor. Franklin Center, Pennsylvania: Franklin
Observed. New York: Collier, 1988.
and Games with Alistair Cooke. New York: Arcade, 1994.
Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University
Nadine. "Chronicle." The New York Times, 22 July 1992.
Judy, editor. TV Book. New York: Workman, 1977.