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In Memoriam: Alistair Cooke

March 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ALISTAIR COOKE: Good evening. I’m Alistair Cooke.

TERENCE SMITH: For 22 seasons, that was the voice welcoming public television viewers to Sunday night’s “Masterpiece Theatre.” Alistair Cooke hosted the program and became synonymous with it. He gave American audiences a unique perspective on the largely British dramas they were about to see.

Cooke first came to the United States from England in 1932 to study theater, but quickly shifted to journalism. After brief stints in Hollywood with Charlie Chaplin and as a film critic back in London, Cooke returned to the U.S. He became a citizen in 1941. During his career, Cooke worked for NBC News and was the chief American correspondent for the “Manchester Guardian.”

ALISTAIR COOKE: Omnibus. A large number of subjects all at once comprising the same of all…

TERENCE SMITH: He first gained fame in the U.S. for “Omnibus,” a network television show covering the arts, sciences, history and drama.

ALISTAIR COOKE: That’s it. Omnibus, something for everybody.

TERENCE SMITH: In the early 1970s, he wrote and narrated the television series “America,” which told the story of the United States from its earliest days to modern time. But it was his radio broadcast “Letter from America” that extended his reputation around the globe. The weekly report premiered in 1946 on the BBC. In a radio interview, Cooke explained how it got its start.

ALISTAIR COOKE: The head man said, “Why don’t you talk to me about things that you talk about? American children, chemistry of the new England fall, out West, anything.” I said, “Well, it opens quite a field.”

He said, “We’ll set you up for 13 weeks, and if it’s a wild success, another 13 weeks. But we’re bankrupt. The treasury has banned all exports of sterling to a certain amount. So even if you’re the biggest thing that ever happened, at the end of 26 weeks, no more.”

It was called “Letter to America.” And, of course, what I coyly say now is somehow they forgot.

TERENCE SMITH: In 1988, Robin MacNeil spoke with Cooke about his broadcasts.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: We know you as so many different things. You are a writer and a radio broadcaster and you’ve been a television host, “Omnibus,” then, and you still are of “Masterpiece Theatre,” which is where the public television audience knows you. A newspaper. Of all those things, what do you like doing best? What’s your favorite thing to do?

ALISTAIR COOKE: No question about it in the past. See, I’ve been doing this weekly talk now for 42 years and…

ROBERT MAC NEIL: The weekly talk called “Letter from America?”

ALISTAIR COOKE: The BBC talk which goes — people always think goes to England. I always say, “No, it goes to Britain in the first place, then it goes to 51 other countries.”

In fact, most of my mail comes from New Zealand, Mexico, Switzerland. So that’s a great privilege to feel that you’re touching an enormously wide general audience, but it’s the actual technique, if you like, the attempt to conquer this art of writing for talking.

And I’m always trying something new every week because the greatest compliment that you can be paid, I think, which people have said to me, is how can you sit down and talk for 13 minutes and 40 seconds, right off the top of your head? And I say, thank you very much. They say, you don’t mean it’s written. I say, it’s written to a fare thee well.

I do write fast, but I talk to the paper, so that the syntax is all over the place as it is in talk. But that if you do that, and people really believe you’re thinking aloud, then it tends to be a good talk.

TERENCE SMITH: His weekly “Letter from America” touched on everything from the first man on the moon, to the assassinations of the Kennedys, to the Iraq war — the subject of his final letter. The program ran for 58 years until Cooke’s retirement this year for personal health reasons. During that time, he missed only three broadcasts.

ALISTAIR COOKE: So goodnight and good-bye.

TERENCE SMITH: Alistair Cooke was 95 years old.