BBC News


Page last updated at 13:15 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2008 14:15 UK

The unseen Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke
Cooke had a great curiosity in all things American
Years before Alistair Cooke began broadcasting his much-loved Letter from America, he travelled across the US with a cine camera. The films reveal a young Cooke fascinated by its landscape, its people and its culture, and eager to tell its stories to the world, says James Naughtie.

When I first had a glimpse of Alistair Cooke's home movie treasure trove I felt as if I had been let into a precious secret. The films had been lying in boxes in corners of his apartment in New York, and down in the basement, and it seems as if they hadn't been touched for years.

Only after he died in 2004 did they come to light, and watching the first flickering images from the 1930s was to take a trip into the past with the perfect guide. You're invited to be part of a personal journey.

The Unseen Alistair Cooke is broadcast on BBC Four on Thursday, 17 July at 2100 BST
Or catch up using the iPlayer

The reason why Cooke was a brilliant journalist, a hero to so many of us, was not simply that he had a gift for words and a golden touch with his pen, but because he was an observer. His pictures of events had a broad sweep but a fingertip feel for detail; the focus moving gracefully from the foreground to the horizon and back again. He never became obsessed by an angle or a misleading shaft of light. Like a painter - and he was married to one for 60 years - he never lost the sense of perspective in a story.

His first journey across America in the early 30s can be followed through the lens of a simple movie camera. He'd arrived on a two-year fellowship which obliged him to travel, and that was what he really wanted to do (apart from becoming a film critic). Watching it even now there's a freshness in his observation, a bubbling enthusiasm for what he sees, that reveals the gleam of the reporter's eye.


A 24-year-old Alistair Cooke drives across the US

He wasn't an aimless traveller, however, picking up whatever he could find. He was ambitious. When he headed West to Los Angeles it was to a Shangri-la of stardom and glamour. Throughout his long life he was entranced by the stars of the silver screen, loving performance and style and the perfection of the actor's craft. He'd always had a weakness for them, and it was quite natural that when he turned that little car westwards he'd end up in California, and Hollywood.


Cooke films Charlie Chaplin playing the fool on his yacht

The sight of Chaplin in these films is extraordinary; capering for Cooke's camera without artifice and with an ease that few of us have ever seen. These glimpses of life on the yacht are electric even now; catching something of the thrill that the young Cooke felt when he'd managed, by a mixture of good fortune and steely determination, to find his way into the glamorous world that, for most people, shimmered from afar and could never be reached.

As the reels of these movies unwind you sense the growth of a young adventurer - drinking up the experiences of 30s Hollywood and New York, making friends, learning about America, gorging himself on the sights and sounds of a country that, through the Depression, was turning to its native ingenuity to survive. He loved that feeling of determination, just as he drank deep at the well of America's own culture - jazz.

Alistair Cooke
Cooke broadcast nearly 3,000 letters

These were heady days. At the end of the 20s, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote abut the excitements of the Jazz Age - sometimes he heard "a ghostly rumble in the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones" that swept him back to the wild days before the Wall Street crash. And Cooke understood the spine-tingling contrast between the hedonism that everyone could remember and the horror of the depression.

These years turned him into a writer. So by the time he began to send a letter home for the BBC, in the 40s, he was a journalist who knew exactly how to turn his observations into polished miniatures that would shine for people who'd never heard the noise of New York nor felt the California sun.


For 58 years, Alistair Cooke entranced listeners of Letter from America

We all have favourite letters. Listening the other day to his account of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, when he arrived moments after the shots were fired and compared the stricken Senator's face to the stone image of a child on some medieval sarcophagus, I thought about how many people try to catch such moments in words, and how many fail. He wrote like an angel. It was as simple as that. And there were the friends; the experiences. What a life it was. Take Lauren Bacall.


Lauren Bacall describes her friendship with Cooke

Watching these recollections on film, he leaps out of the screen. The reason why his majestic series "America" in the 70s was so compelling was that he managed to convey his own curiosity and boyish enthusiasm without ever appearing arch or stagey. It was genuine. His eyes twinkled, his ear for a phrase or a snatch of jazz was always perfectly tuned, and his love of a nicely-turned sentence never flagged.

The jumpy films from those boxes on Fifth Avenue reveal exactly what it was that made the writer, the reporter, the commentator. It was simply a love of discovery, and an urge to see what lay around the next corner. Put that together with a natural gift for language, a passion for the flow of a paragraph, and you find magic.

I met him once in the BBC studios in New York, when they were in the Rockefeller Centre. He'd arrived to record the Letter. I was an itinerant from The World At One, in town for an election. I watched him through a studio window, reading from a typed script (covered in careful emendations) placed on a small wooden stand.

We spoke about this and that. He was gentle, witty, generous. It's not always like that: heroes can be disappointments. He never was. These home movies give us just a glimpse - a flash - of the richness of his life, and they explain the man. He was an explorer, an enthusiast and a reporter. What could be better than that?

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific