Sarah Churchwell: What made Alistair Cooke great

His skillwasto grasp our directness and translate it back, indirectly

Share
Related Topics

Yesterday would have been the hundredth anniversary of Alistair Cooke's birth. For me, as for most Americans over the age of 25, the name Alistair Cooke conjures a familiar image: a grey-haired Englishman, accoutred with smoking jacket, cravat, and pipe, sitting in a wing chair by a crackling fire, introducing PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.

Hosting the television program that brought BBC television to America made Alistair Cooke so iconic there that he spawned parodies and spin-offs, including Sesame Street's immortal "Monsterpiece Theatre," starring Cookie Monster as Alistair Cookie, who ended most of his segments by gobbling down his pipe.

Introducing everything from Elizabeth R and I, Claudius, to minor adaptations like Frederick Lonsdale's On Approval, Cooke explained British high culture to us. He was Englishness personified, as Edwardian as the world of Upstairs, Downstairs he interpreted for us.

It came as something of a surprise, after I moved to Britain, to learn that he is as iconic here, but for the opposite reason: our quintessential Englishman was Britain's voice of modern America for half a century in his weekly broadcast for the BBC. The symmetry pleases: he brought the BBC to us, and the BBC brought him back to you.

The American Studies department at the University of East Anglia, where I work, has just acquired the rights to create an online archive of the nearly 3,000 transcripts of his broadcasts from 1946 to 2004, which came to an end only weeks before his death.

I only discovered the Letters from America once I moved here, and was fascinated by Cooke's vision of my country, for it seems to me entirely English. Restrained, cool, cerebral, distant, Cooke's writing was characterised by an obliquity that is quite alien to the American sensibility. We are a direct people; Cooke's brilliance was to understand our directness and translate it back, indirectly.

In many ways, Alistair Cooke exemplifies the so-called special relationship, the fundamental affinities between America and Britain-and our equally fundamental differences. I once had the experience of expatriation explained to me as the feeling on a good day that you belong to two countries, and on a bad that you don't belong anywhere at all. Reading Cooke's letters, registering the consummate ease and comfort he projected, it is easy to believe that every day was a good day for Cooke.

But the apparent effortlessness that characterises his writing only comes from great effort; consider the almost prophetic foreboding with which he ends his description of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, describing the "warm, remote population that had seen Robert Frost's moment of misery, and Mrs Kennedy's smooth throat twitch for a second as the 'unbearable office' passed from the oldest President to the youngest". The minutiae of that frightening, finely observed "twitch" suggests that his prescience derived from precision, graft disguised by craft.

Understanding that the medium is the message, Cooke crafted his television image as carefully as his words. It seems apt that this most American of Brits should, in fact, have been raised by working-class parents in Salford. His persona as America's favourite aristocrat was conjured in a way that would do any self-inventing American proud. Having sprung in part from a Platonic conception of himself, Alistair Cooke lived the American dream – a greater Gatsby.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower