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

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The Independent Culture

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.”