Enthusiasts give 620 lost Alistair Cooke 'letters' to BBC

40 years ago, David Henderson was an avid listener to the radio great. Now his treasured tapes are helping to fill a gap in the BBC’s history

In his few spare moments as a Wiltshire dairy farmer nearly 40 years ago, David Henderson was fond - like millions of Britons - of listening to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. Indeed, such was his enjoyment, he bought a tape recorder to preserve the broadcaster’s transatlantic musings.

Over a period of five years, Mr Henderson, 64, consigned to dozens of cassettes the thoughts of Mr Cooke on happenings from the end of the Vietnam War to the Camp David peace deal, assuming that his life in rolling fields near Stratford Upon Avon had no part to play in such global events.

But, along with another Cooke enthusiast equipped with a reel-to-reel recorder in Cornwall, the farmer has proved the salvation of the BBC (and of the legacy of Britain’s most renowned chronicler of American life) by filling a large gap in a recently-unveiled archive of his programmes.

The online collection of Letter from America recordings features audio and transcripts from 900 of the weekly broadcasts stretching over 58 years. But with a total of 2,869 “letters” recorded by Cooke between 1946 and 2004, there are yawning gaps in the Corporation’s own collection.

Step forward Mr Henderson and Newquay resident Roy Whittaker, who from their long-forgotten boxes of tapes have added a further 620 lost episodes from the 1970s to the archive after an appeal from the BBC led to them unearthing their private collections from attics and cellars.

The recordings, some of them made on a defunct eight-track recorder bought by Mr Henderson at an auction of agricultural equipment in 1975, have been carefully retrieved by BBC engineers and will soon be added to the online archive unveiled last month.

Mr Henderson said:  “I was brought up on a family farm and I left school at 16. Alistair Cooke was a voice from a different world but he had the ability to talk to the ordinary guy like myself. He could bridge that gap between the sophistication of America and do it in a way that made sense to people like me.

“When I bought the recorder it was part of a lot that included a television set. I wanted the telly but since I had the eight-track I thought it would be great to record Letter from America so, if I was going out, I could listen to it later. It was like listening to a friend. It became something of a habit.”

In 1980, the farmer - a keen space enthusiast who, partially inspired by Cooke, visited Florida in 1972 for the launch of the Apollo 17 moon landing - attended a Young Farmers’ meeting to show a film he made about his trip and met his future wife, Jenny.

At this point, the recordings stopped but Mr Henderson retained the tapes and an affection for the melifluous tones of the Salford-born broadcaster who was credited with awakening if not a love, then a curiosity for America among Britons. Mr Cooke famously missed only three of his 15-minute weekly broadcasts, mostly recorded in his Manhattan flat, before his death aged 95.

It was an enthusiasm shared by Roy Whittaker, who like Mr Henderson in his farmhouse kitchen, had taken to recording Letter from America at his Newquay home. His collection added 470 missing recordings to the archive, including all broadcasts from 1979 - compared to the five from that year held by the BBC.

Mr Whittaker said: “I wanted to be able to listen to them again. I could listen to them over and over again because he is such a marvellous English-speaking individual the like I’ve never heard before and I don’t suppose I shall ever hear again. He was just a genius.”

The finds mean that previously lost recordings by Mr Cooke on seminal events in post-war American history, including a 1975 broadcast about the entry of Communist forces to Saigon and a 1978 “letter” on the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt, have now been preserved.

Although most of Mr Cooke’s later broadcasts were kept by the BBC, its post-war practice of not recording output means that large amounts of material up to the 1970s have been lost. The Corporation has only three recordings of Letter from America from the 1950s and approximately one per year for the 1960s and the early 1970s, making the collections of Mr Henderson and Mr Whittaker all the more important. It is still appealing for other recordings.

Zillah Watson, senior producer for Radio 4 Interactive, said: “We always hoped to recover episodes lost to the archives but we never dreamed of getting such a large haul. We have begun the process of digitising these episodes to preserve them in the BBC archives for future generations. Mr Whittaker and Mr Henderson began their collections because of their love of the show and we want to give a wider audience the opportunity to enjoy them as well.”

In meantime, the two men can bask in the knowledge that their attic collections have preserved for posterity a little more of the legacy of a national treasure, a fact acknowledged by Mr Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, who has written to both of them thanking them for their diligence and saying their story would have delighted her father.

Mr Henderson said: “I never dreamt that I would somehow have a personal connection with Alistair Cooke but the letter completes the circle. It was quite emotional to read it. I’m just an English farmer and I don’t consider myself an intellectual but I’ve ended up as a custodian of this great man’s thoughts.”

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea