Thursday 20 November 2008

Alistair Cooke, 100

It's the centenary of the birth of Alistair Cooke, an occasion that is being marked with due ceremony by the BBC - despite the fact that for most of his broadcasting career the BBC was trying to get rid of him. It's a BBC tradition - the high-ups always hate and resent their best talent, usually because it tends not to sit easily with the prevailing leftist-PC ethos. Every now and then some BBC aparatchik would be sent over to New York to try to dislodge Cooke and put an end to Letter From America, a programme the go-ahead BBC regarded as hopelessly dated. Said aparatchik would invariably return scratching his head, rubbing his chin and wondering what happened - and the great man, having bamboozled and charmed the young whippersnapper from here to eternity, would carry on as before.
He was, as the BBC - now he is safely dead - acknowledges, a very great radio broadcaster, who turned the quarter-hour talk into a form of high (but entirely effortless and unforced) art. Ars celare artem and all that - his talks seemed quite astonishingly casual at the time he started them, as hearing anyone else's radio talks from the time confirms. And he kept going, far, far beyond the normal career span of a broadcaser, let alone a programme. He was there for 9/11 and rose to that terrible occasion as well as anyone at the time. There will, of course, never be another Alistair Cooke, and the art which he perfected, the short talk, is barely clinging to life - a great shame, as it has endless possibilities in the right hands. Clive James, for example, can do it - here's his latest. Enjoy.


  1. How odd, Nige. I've just finished listening to the Alistair Cooke Lecture by David Mamet, which amused and delighted me in so many ways.

    It always saddens me that Clive James no longer makes programmes. He too has that apparently effortless charm, tied to wit and intelligence, and made programmes like nobody else. These are sad days when TV producers send all kind of barely articulate gibbons abroad to comment on culture and Clive James now only makes shows for The Times Online.

  2. For many years Alistair Cooke was the entertaining source of information from inside America, he is sadly missed by all.
    Nick Clarkes biography and his own Memories of the Great & The Good are both cracking good reads.
    He was, as they say in the land of the downtrodden Scots, "a man of pairts"
    I agree with you Dick, Clive is the best thing ever to land on these shores from Australia, hilarious and the greatest one liners ever. His assessment of dear old Bertie Speer after his television interview "he knew how many beans made five but unfortunately didn't know how many made two"

    In the meantime the BBC saddles us with the likes of K Wark and J Vine. NB Oddie is ok.

  3. They used to use Cooke in history lessons at school. I did a mean impression. You have to startwith something like: "You know, I can never visit Springfield without thinking of the speech made by Ulysses S Grant to a baying crowd as he stood on an upturned water butt in front of the old church...."

  4. Dick Madeley is spot on about Clive James. Not long ago I was given a copy of Cultural Amnesia "which amused and delighted me in so many ways". Can't same the same for Alastair Cooke, though. What an awful old groaner! I had to turn off the radio or leave the room whenever he came on. Golf, over-sugared shortbread biscuits and a cloying tweediness all rolled into one. He must have been past it by 1960. But each to their own, etc. He was hardly a Saddam Hussein, even of the airwaves, though to some ears he may have inflicted similar devastation whenever Letter from America was announced.

  5. OMG, Malty, don't call him "a man of parts." You know, of course, that he was involved in a post-humous scandal -- some of his "parts" were sold to doctors who then put them in other people who needed this bone, that tendon, etc. The NYC funeral directors have since been imprisoned for this racket in their deceased customers' parts, but I know Cooke's family was especially freaked out. (And you gotta feel sorry for whoever inherited them -- he was OLD!)