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Biographer discusses the elusive personality of Alistair Cooke.

March 24, 1996 marked 50 years of Alistair Cooke's "Letter From America" program over the BBC, (heard locally every Saturday morning on KWMU) the longest running series in the history of radio.

Nick Clarke, host of the BBC's popular "World at One" radio program was recently dubbed as Cooke's biographer.

Like Cooke, Clarke is a University of Cambridge graduate and life-long employee of the BBC. Clarke has worked at newspapers and in television news in the United Kingdom and conducted many interviews in both America. and: Great Britain with those of long association with the award-winning "Letter from America" series, as well as a series of talks with Alistair Cooke himself. This interview was recently conducted at BBC Headquarters, Broadcasting House, London.

SJR: Alistair Cooke is regarded by many of us who teach broadcast writing as the master craftsman. What is it about his radio style that distinguishes it from others?

CLARKE: It is a style which ought not to translate from the radio to the written pages as well as it does because it has a conversational feel on the radio which you would imagine would seem bitty or disjointed on the printed page. Having said that, I should add that when he publishes his "Letters" in book form, he does tweak them. He does not actually write them down as they were broadcast, and for obvious reasons.

SJR: I once asked Mr. Cooke about his literary heroes - those who influenced him the most as a writer when he first started out. Of course he identified H. L. Mencken, among others, including Mark Twain. What about his association with Mencken? It is interesting that he has stuck with Mencken over the years and continues to credit him as a major resource even though Mencken has, to some extent, fallen out of favor.

CLARKE: I have read a lot of Mencken because of this project. The writing is very old fashioned. It seems very dated now. But you are right, he stuck by Mencken when he was writing things which these days would be viewed as being completely and utterly unacceptable. He stuck by him because he was very unaffected by changing fashion. The things that appealed to him about Mencken before, and appealed to him later, were that he was very independent-minded and wrote very pithily. He was always his own man and that also appealed to him. The fact that he became politically incorrect and almost unacceptable would not influence his overall view.

SJR: Maybe like others, he just felt Mencken reflected some views that were more representative of his day, rather than extreme personal biases and prejudices?

CLARKE: I suspect that is how he regards a lot of things and people in the world today. And that has a sort of respectability of its own kind. I mean, do you turn against your friends when they turn funny? I don't know whether you should or not. I have never been in sympathy with doing so. There's no certainty that Alistair Cooke himself, who was brought up on The Manchester Guardian, is not likened in any way - or that sort of way at all himself.

SJR: Cooke seems to be perceived as conservative here in the United Kingdom. Why would that be and how would you characterize his public image?

CLARKE: He's a number of different people, depending on who you are. That is, of course, probably true of all of us - at least philosophically speaking, but maybe not publicly.

SJR: His listeners seem to represent an older, more conservative and more affluent group generally in the United Kingdom right now, correct?

CLARKE: The average age of his listener would probably be older rather than younger. My guess is most of his listeners are over 40 rather than under, but he is very familiar to anyone of that type who listens to that station.

SJR: In his book Inside the BBC, Leonard Miall points out that, for the most part, Mr. Cooke has not enjoyed full staff status at the network?

CLARKE: The fact is that very few of us are on the BBC staff. Most of the BBC broadcasters, including presenters of programs such as myself, are almost all freelancers of some sort or other and on some sort of special contract. The staff positions have always been reserved really for production people, mostly engineers and that sort of thing. A tremendous number of actual broadcasters here are not considered staff members even though they may have long associations with the BBC.

SJR: What about Mr. Cooke's agreement today? How would it compare, for example, to your own contract?

CLARKE: I am sure he has no contract at all at the moment. I have not asked him the question, so I really do not know, but I am sure that he has an arrangement that is continuing. I have no annual contract and actually get paid per program, but it works out to be an annual agreement. That is how most of these things are done here. Whether they pay him on a weekly basis or whether they have an annual contract with him, I really do not know. I don't think he has ever been on a contract basis except perhaps in his early days as a film critic.

SJR: Have any of his broadcasts received any special attention or resulted in any kind of major public reaction?

CLARKE: The programme that caused the biggest stir was, of course, his Bobby Kennedy assassination broadcast. Alistair had always attended political talks like these as a reporter but he wasn't there for that reason on that occasion. He was with a friend who said that he might have a chance for a brief chat with Kennedy. They had been waiting around in the kitchen for an opportunity to talk to him when it happened a few yards away. And he did not have his typewriter with him. In a funny way, I think that's what impressed him more than anything about this horrible event. He was separated from his tool which had always been very important to him. So he wrote it by hand and I think it Was very moving. The transcript of that broadcast is on display right now in the Special Collections at the Mugar Library at Boston University, along with various awards and photographs of him with major figures, including Charlie Chaplin.

SJR: I wrote to him recently about his relationship with Chaplin and other actors of the early era and really did not get much of a response - at least compared with what he had given me previously - on other occasions :and With other topics. Any idea why?

CLARKE: He can be quite difficult to tie down. He has a discursive mind so you can start asking him about one subject and finish up with another. It can turn out to be just as interesting, but not necessarily what you wanted to talk about.

SJR: Besides his early coverage of the Hollywood scene, Mr. Cooke is often credited with improving Anglo-American relations and political understanding in particular, between our two countries. What role has he really played in that area?

CLARKE: His role has changed over time. When they first started doing these programs, there probably was very limited understanding. After all, before the "Letter from America," beginning in the 1930s, he did some other things like "American Correspondent" and "Mainly About Manhattan." At that time, he was quite keen to build up interest because his argument was that there was limited coverage. The idea was, you have got to first get people to think about politics so you report on what government is up to. Now his role has changed. With the overload of information we all have, it has less to do with the here and now and more to do with the extended time he has been at it. It gives him a special perspective.

SJR: How do you think he has been able to sustain that interest?

CLARKE: Alistair has an extraordinary memory and by relating certain things to certain other things we get a slightly more rounded view than simply saying: "Oh look, the leader of the House of Representatives is doing A, B or C." He can now say, let's look at the broader context or the way this particular role has developed over-time. That way you have a fuller, deeper understanding. So it is more charming and idiosyncratic now than it is incredibly important.

SJR: Since he no longer hosts "Masterpiece Theatre" on American public television he has fallen out of public view in the United States. It seems kind of Strange that he is still a household name here in the United Kingdom for a popular radio program he does about America and Americans, a role mostly unknown or, to be fair, let's say under-appreciated, by many people in his own, adopted country?

CLARKE: By circumstance or happenstance the situation has always been that he is famous for one thing here and something entirely different in your country. Of course, the other way of looking at it is if you are famous in both countries for something, why should you worry? It is odd, but I don't think he has really thought about it that much.

Michael D. Murray is Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is a SJR editorial advisory board member and also currently the John Adams Fellow at the Institute of U.S. Studies, Senate House, University of London.
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Title Annotation:Nick Clarke talks about the host of BBC's 'Letter from America'
Author:Murray, Michael D.
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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