Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
on 26 October 2009
`Gued evening.' I can still hear the familiar and well-loved voice of Alistair Cooke starting his weekly `Letter from America' on BBC radio. The series came about through drift more than through design or policy, and it lasted for over 60 years. Alistair Cooke died in 2004, aged 95 and reportedly working on his next `talk' as he himself called his weekly broadcasts.
He was English of course, born in Manchester (or at least Salford) and Cambridge-educated. From an early date America became his home, and his deep love of his adopted country, combined of course with his outstanding journalistic gifts, gave his talks their distinctive flavour and accounted for their astonishing success with their British audience. They are letters from America, not letters to America, and I have no idea whether they were familiar in America, where Cooke was better known for his longer broadcasts and for his books. I myself developed a fascination for America and for Cooke's talks from an early age, and I was pleased to find that the selection of 8 broadcasts here, although including recent numbers from 2003 and 2001, covers a wide range of dates going back as far as 1951, when I was already hooked on Cooke. At that date Radio 4 was called the Home Service, and television, although in existence as an invention, was only beginning to penetrate our culture. You can hear Cooke on this topic in the first item on the second disc. I no doubt heard it myself, but `heard' and not `saw' would have been the verb, as my parents were implacably opposed to having such a thing distracting their school-aged family from their schoolwork.
None of the talks here is on any political topic, you may be relieved to hear. In the nature of the case, plenty of them were, but Cooke was far too skilful, professional and sensitive to obtrude his own political opinions in any way that would be objectionable. Similarly his passion for golf is something he regularly alludes to, but again he has more sense than to be any clubhouse bore on air. Often he would start on one topic and drift on to another or others, and that is what he does in his first letter here, which starts with the subject of how he actually introduced Leonard Bernstein, no less, to The Messiah. In another he starts by talking about Groucho Marx and finishes with a long and affectionate tribute to Bing Crosby. He talks about whatever he fancies, I'm sure he consulted no focus groups about what might interest his listeners, and his success in that respect is proof of what amounts to no less than genius.
The talks are introduced by the BBC's American editor Justin Webb. Justin Webb is a polished BBC professional, smooth and accomplished and with all the individuality of a paper cup. His presence throws into higher relief the difference between Alistair Cooke and the regular run of journalists, even upmarket journalists. On these two discs the linking motif is the festive season. I am sure that these talks will have an assured market among British nostalgists who remember Cooke as well as I do. Who else they will appeal to I have no real idea. Admirers of journalistic talent ought to find plenty to admire, and Americans may be interested to hear how their nation and their culture were presented, so sympathetically and for so long, by no mean presenter.