Letter from America
I planned to write about a loved radio programme for each of twenty treatments for prostrate cancer. I managed just four before other demands and maybe some side-effect fatigue crowded in. The treatment is finished now but I wanted to record some precious radio memories jogged by an American friend who spent part of her childhood in 1970’s England.
For my friend’s family, I can only imagine the importance of tuning in to hear from home; there was no CNN or internet for most of the programme’s run. For its own part, my small English family listened rapt each Sunday morning to Letter from America by Englishman Alistair Cooke. Post-war Britain was in awe of its affluent ally over the pond; land of skyscrapers, ostentatious, winged automobiles, colour TV and refrigerators. We wanted to know what might be coming our way as well as try to understand how the final of the National Baseball competition came to be The World Series.
Letter from America was first broadcast in 1946 and Cooke broadcast his weekly, 15 minute, letters until shortly before his death in 2004 aged 95. His voice had acquired a soft, mid-Atlantic twang but remained recognisably English. His subjects ranged across topical, mundane, obscure and quirky. The Presidential Election campaign sat comfortably alongside the evident relief the broadcaster felt as September arrived in New York City and cooler, fresher air replaced the stifling humidity of summer. There was always an undertone of dry humour. His love of golf also came to the fore in quite a few of his letters.
The concept of a trans-atlantic broadcast correspondence pre-dated the Second World War, when Cooke was NBC’s correspondent in London. London Letter became Letter from America.
Cooke was able to provide a unique perspective on important parts of the history of the 20th Century. He was yards from Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated. He narrated the progress of the awful Vietnam war to a British audience that was happy, for once, to be mere onlookers.
Alistair Cooke was a prolific journalist and broadcaster. Letter from America represents a mighty legacy but just the tip of his output iceberg. Americans enjoyed his role as the host of Masterpiece Theatre, a Public Broadcasting showcase for British television which continues today. His character and this series were parodied in Sesame Street.
Cooke loved America but he never lost his English perspective and the ability to take a wry look at the culture of his adopted country. The admiration we felt for our cousins across the pond was nicely balanced by his reassurance that we still had the edge in the important areas of life; politics, sport, weather and our ability to laugh at ourselves.