Barry Band: How the mid-Atlantic voice of a legendary broadcaster created his American TV success

Enough is enough! Gruesome crime thrillers are off my reading list. It’s back to biographies.

Thursday, 9th May 2019, 3:19 pm
English journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

It began last summer when the biog of Blackpool’s most famous student was discovered in a charity shop.The book gave Memory Lane an “exclusive” about how Alistair Cooke (1908-2004), the legendary BBC broadcaster, got into journalism by writing a review of a play he was in at the Blackpool Opera House.But there was so much fascinating detail in the 1999 biography by BBC presenter Nick Clarke (1948-2006) that another Memory Lane visit was on the cards.Today’s article covers the American television triumphs of the man who gave us 2,869 episodes of Letter from America on BBC radio from 1946 until shortly before his death.Salford-born Alfred Cooke lived in the resort from age seven. His parents had a guest house in Vance Road, Central Blackpool, for four years before moving to a house in Ormond Avenue, North Shore. He attended the Secondary School in Church Street. It later became Blackpool Grammar School and is now the Salvation Army Citadel.Cooke left the resort on a Blackpool Council scholarship to Cambridge, where he co-founded the Mummers dramatic society. He was 21 when he got a role as an “extra” in a touring play during his summer break. The Blackpool week came prior to Manchester and he sold his review to the Manchester Guardian to put the paper “one up” on its competitors.He was later a roving correspondent for the Guardian, mainly in America, until 1972.Nick Clarke’s biography revealed that in 1930 Cooke changed his first name to Alistair. Did he think it would look and sound better as a name in the media?Cooke virtually invented himself as the English commentator on America, and became an American citizen in 1941.The biographer said that when the 200th Letter was broadcast, The Guardian’s London editor John Beavan (later Lord Ardwick) wrote of the “dark silk voice” heard by millions of BBC listeners every Friday night.The English, said Beavan, assumed that Cooke was American - while every American, listening to the distinctive timbre of his voice, assumed he was English.And it was the mid-Atlantic voice that was to give Cooke a role that made him a star on American television, not as a reporter but as a presenter of what was probably the first TV arts programme.Nick Clarke revealed that, in 1952, Cooke’s witty acceptance speech of an American radio award for his contribution to international understanding, was heard by a TV producer.The producer, Robert Saudek, had been given a budget of 1.2 million dollars by the Ford Foundation to create a cultural programme called Omnibus, on the CBS network.Saudek was looking for a presenter-interviewer to cover art, theatre, film, music, literature, history and other subjects, most of them screened live.Aimed at a general audience, it was a risky venture - a leap into the unknown - but with Cooke at the helm it ran for 160 shows between 1952 and 1961.(The programme was six years ahead of the BBC’s first arts programme, Huw Weldon’s Monitor, which was succeeded in 1965 by the BBC’s own Omnibus).Britain didn’t see the American Omnibus shows and neither did we hear about Cooke’s other cultural triumph a few years later.From 1971 he was the man trusted by the Boston-based Public Broadcasting Service to introduce American viewers to several big BBC and ITV historical drama series under the title of Masterpiece Theatre.They included classics like The First Churchills, The Six Wives of Henry V111, Elizabeth R, I Claudius, and Upstairs, Downstairs.Cooke introduced these major series for 20 years but when he was first approached he was busy writing his epic series titled America for BBC-TV. When PBS made another bid, Cooke’s lawyer made an outrageous demand, to “frighten them off” - but they agreed!Cooke couldn’t turn down 30,000 dollars for just introducing the episodes in each series!The book notes that for the series I, Claudius (produced by the BBC) Cooke filmed his intros to 13 episodes in one day at the Boston studios.His first words were always “Good evening, I’m Alistair Cooke” as he gave viewers an uncritical explanation of the stories and characters and where they stood in history and literature.An exception was Poldark. It was fiction and a bit of journalistic colouring was needed!Together with fees for his 1972 historical series America (which was seen world-wide) and royalties from his companion book, which created a new concept of TV show spin-offs, Cooke became wealthy for the first time.He may be remembered here for radio’s Letter from America - and he always spoke of being a reporter - but in his adopted country he was much more famous as an erudite television personality.Educated in Blackpool . . . and Cambridge.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Book signing - The Americans at Harrods, London, November 1979 (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Alistair Cooke leaves Waterloo Station on the Queen Mary boat train with his wife, artist Jane White Cooke Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images