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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Cooke's producer hails his creativity
Alistair Cooke
Cooke only visited the UK a few times a year
BBC producer Tony Grant has worked on Alistair Cooke's Letter from America for the past 10 years. Here he shares his memories of working with Cooke on the long-running Radio 4 programme.

There is an old memo somewhere in the BBC archives written by Alistair Cooke in February 1946.

It is addressed to senior officials in what was then the BBC's Talks Division and it suggests that he be commissioned to do a weekly talk to be called Alistair Cooke's American Letter.

"It will be a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside about American life and people and places in the American news," he wrote.

"I shall try to give him a running commentary on topical aspects of American life and some of the intimate background to Washington policy.

"The stress will tend always to be on the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines, rather than on the bright headlines themselves."

Creative input

The BBC clearly was impressed. They commissioned him, initially, for a 13-week run...but the Letter just kept on going.

His last one, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the 20 February this year was the 2,869. He had been writing that Letter for 58 years.

I have worked on the programme for the last 10 years and although I was often called the producer, that was not strictly accurate.

Producers know what it is in the programme, they have creative input, they make suggestions. It was not like that with Alistair. He wrote the Letter, I made sure it got on the air.

Working mainly in the London office of Letter from America, I met him only a few times.

He used to come to London to record the talk once or twice a year, often when he was in town to take his seat at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Alistair Cooke
Cooke also worked in television
I used to joke with him: "OK Alistair, let's have a look at that script then!"

He would laugh, and tell me not to talk nonsense. Then we would disappear into a studio and he would read through the 2,000 words of his script with hardly a fluff.

Only once it was on tape would he finally hand over the half dozen densely typed pages of the script.

Ordinary folk

He rang me at home late one night last week sounding distressed.

"Tony," he asked, "you know they say they are going to play several of the old Letters out of the archives over the next few weeks, are you choosing which ones will go out?"

When I said that I was, he urged me not to choose those editions which dealt with the minutiae of American politics or about Vietnam or about the first American in space.

"The ones I want to be remembered for," he told me, "are the ones about people, the Letters which tell stories about ordinary folk doing extraordinary things."

I replied that I would do everything I could to make sure his wish was respected.

"God bless you," he said.



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