A classic from what now seems like the Golden Age of TV documentaries, Alistair Cookes America
was first broadcast in 1972-3 and it remains, along with the contemporary The World at War
, an example of how documentaries should be made: theres none of the flashy editing, wobbly camera-work, over-intrusive music or costumed actors prancing around in the mode of Simon Schamas fussy History of Britain
for example. Here there is just scenery, the odd map or illustration andmost importantlyCooke himself talking directly and unhurriedly to camera. Over 13 leisurely hours, he narrates a "personal history" of his adopted country, beginning with his own arrival as a fresh young Cambridge graduate in the 1930s before taking us back to the very foundations of America, its colonisation, the war of Independence (told in an admirably non-partisan way) and so on through momentous and turbulent decades right up to the early 1970s, where Civil Rights and protest movements are high on the agenda.
Throughout, Cooke interweaves anecdotes and digressions into the main narrative, charming the viewer with his storytelling precisely in the manner so beloved of listeners to his admirable Letter from America. By the end he has a warning that, although delivered in 1973, remains as telling today as it did then: America, like Ancient Rome as depicted by Gibbon in his Decline and Fall, stands poised between its remarkable vitality and its equally remarkable capacity for decadence. Whether, like Rome, the USA becomes a victim of its own internal divisions or somehow manages to pull back from the brink still remains to be seen.
On the DVD: This four-disc set is neatly presented in digipack format, and includes a Pebble Mill at One interview with Cooke in which he discusses the series. --Mark Walker
This 1972 TV documentary series offers a personal view of the history and development of the USA by esteemed Anglo-American journalist Alistair Cooke, who died in 2004 at the age of 95 after a long and illustrious broadcasting career. Combining specially-shot and archive film with photographs, paintings and sketches, the series starts with the colonial period, continues through the revolutionary war and pioneer expansionist eras, looks at the global conflicts and economic domination of the 20th century, and concludes with a study of the social upheavals and counter-culture revolutions of the 1960s and early 70s. The series was born as a spin-off of Cooke's exceptionally long-running (58 years) radio slot, Letter From America.