America's pet Brit, Britain's favorite American.

Bringing out the dead.
March 31 2004 3:37 PM

Alistair Cooke

America's pet Brit, Britain's favorite American.

Alistair Cooke
Alistair Cooke

It is difficult to overestimate the ignorance of American history and culture that existed among most educated British people when Alistair Cooke started broadcasting his famous Letter From America for the BBC soon after the end of World War II. It was only at that time, thanks largely to the influence of the Cambridge historian Denis Brogan, the author of several notable books on the United States, that Oxford and Cambridge finally allowed their students to take courses in American history. Until then, neither university regarded America as a respectable subject for academic study. It is another remarkable fact that no serving British prime minister until Winston Churchill had ever visited the United States. The immense importance of the United States to Britain during and after the war meant, of course, that American politics were extensively covered by the Washington correspondents of the British press. But in Britain there was little understanding of—or sympathy for—the American way of life, which many Britons widely assumed to be crass and alien. Alistair Cooke made it his task to rectify this. On Valentine's Day, 1946, he wrote to the BBC with the idea of a letter from America, proposing it as "a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside about American life and people and places in the American news. … The stress will tend always to be on the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines, rather than the bright headlines themselves."He was true to his word. In 2,869 broadcasts, spanning 58 years, he extolled all the things he loved about America—its show business, its popular music, and its sports, as well as its politics and its higher culture—in 13-1/2-minute weekly talks, carefully prewritten to sound as natural, discursive, and conversational as possible and delivered in comforting mellifluous tones. It would be no exaggeration to say that Cooke transformed the image of America for the ordinary, middle-class Briton. From the beginning of his series right until the end when frailty forced him to give them up only a month before his death Tuesday at the age of 95, he conveyed an inner certainty that America was the most interesting country on earth, and some Britons who had never thought so before were persuaded to agree. The cozy way he said, "Good morning," with a seductive upward lilt on the last syllable, was enough to give reassurance to the middle-class people of Britain as they rubbed their eyes at 8:45 on a Sunday morning. They couldn't feel so frightened of America after that. According to the BBC, he still had at the end of his broadcasting career 1.87 million listeners in Britain, which is an impressive number. The best-selling broadsheet newspaper in Britain, the Daily Telegraph, sells less than a million copies. But the confidence Cooke conveyed in his talks did not reflect his complex and rather prickly character. He was a gifted working-class boy from the north of England, the son of a metal-worker who through scholarships ended up at Cambridge, where he dispensed with all traces of a northern accent and changed his first name from Alfred to Alistair. He apparently thought that Alistair sounded classier than Alfred, though it is hard to see why. At Cambridge he excelled at acting and journalism, and he was also good at improvising popular tunes on the piano. Some friends were so impressed that they thought he might become a new Noel Coward, who was also of humble social origins and similarly reinvented himself as an English sophisticate. But Cooke chose journalism and, after a fellowship took him to Yale and Harvard, fell so much in love with America that he eventually decided to settle there. When he set sail for New York in 1937, he had already decided to become an American citizen. But the timing was unfortunate because his naturalization papers came through in Britain's darkest hour, in 1941, and he was widely (and unfairly) denounced as a rat who had deliberately chosen that desperate moment in British history to renounce his British heritage. In the words of Leonard Miall, the BBC's first Washington correspondent after the war, Cooke was troubled for many years after this by a problem of national identity. He was chosen in 1970 by WGBH *, the Boston station of the new American public-TV network, to host the British Sunday night drama series Masterpiece Theater,"because he was regarded there as the quintessential Englishman. Yet for decades he had been broadcasting his Letter From America to a British radio audience which regarded him as a particularly sympathetic kind of American."Cooke himself recognized the problem when he said, "Here [in America] they think I'm an old English gent, and in England they think I'm an enlightened American." But he must have been uncomfortable in his "English gent" role, much as he had sought to cultivate it, for at Cambridge, when asked to list his pet abominations, he named among them "the English gentleman." He also once said that he had gone to America to escape "the seediness and snobbery of English life."Cooke will be remembered not only for his rare skills as a reporter and broadcaster, but also for the extraordinary longevity of his career. His Letter From America was by far the longest-running talk program of any radio station in the world, and for 25 years he was also the much-admired chief U.S. correspondent of the Guardian newspaper. When he resigned from the Guardian in 1972, he wrote to its editor that "when the swishing of the Old Man with the scythe can so easily be mistaken for the east wind, it is high time I stopped doing daily journalism."It was 32 years after that that the Old Man finally turned up, to find Cooke still doing his weekly broadcast for the BBC.

Correction March 31, 2004: The article originally misstated a Boston public TV station's call letters as WGHB; WGBH is correct. (Return to the corrected item.)

Alexander Chancellor is a columnist for the Guardian.