COOKE, ALISTAIR

U.S. Journalist/Television Personality

During 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.

As 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.

Cooke's 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.

Later 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.

Cooke 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.

Cooke 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.

In 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.

Cooke 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 from America.

-Val E. Limberg


Alistair Cooke
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.

TELEVISION SERIES

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 narrator)
1973 Hitler (narrator)

RADIO

Letter from America, 1946-.

PUBLICATIONS (selection)

Garbo and the Night Watchmen (editor). London: J. Cape, 1937.

Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1940.

A Generation on Trial: USA v Alger Hiss. New York: Knopf, 1950.

Christmas Eve. New York: Knopf, 1952.

A Commencement Address. New York: Knopf, 1954.

Around the World in Fifty Years. Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational Corp., 1966.

Talk About America. London: Bodley Head, 1968.

Alistair Cooke's America. New York: Knopf, 1973.

The American in Europe: From Emerson to S.J. Perelman: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Six Men. London: Bodley Head, 1977.

Above London, with Robert Cameron. London: Bodley Head, 1980.

Masterpieces. New York: Knopf, 1981.

The Patient Has the Floor. Franklin Center, Pennsylvania: Franklin Institute, 1986.

America Observed. New York: Collier, 1988.

Fun and Games with Alistair Cooke. New York: Arcade, 1994.

FURTHER READING

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Brozan, Nadine. "Chronicle." The New York Times, 22 July 1992.

Fireman, Judy, editor. TV Book. New York: Workman, 1977.