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Alistair Cooke outside Broadcasting House
Alistair Cooke's Letter from America was broadcast for 58 years
When Alistair Cooke died in March, it was the end of an association with the BBC spanning more than 70 years. His biographer, World at One presenter Nick Clarke, looks back at Cooke's relationship with the Corporation.

In the summer of 1931, a 23-year-old Cambridge graduate called Alistair Cooke (he'd been christened Alfred but changed his name by deed poll) wrote to the BBC's talks director, wondering if he would like the opportunity to employ him.

The letter lists his qualifications, and continues:
"I am prepared to talk on:
a) The Theatre - criticism and comment - a short history
of English Acting or Drama
b) Literary criticism
c) Read Fiction or Poetry
d)Write Revue Sketches
e)Write Songs
f) Help on the Radio Times with caricatures, articles etc."

The sheer bravado of this missive is impressive, but the BBC failed to be impressed.

The talks director informed him that there had been "a glut of talks of this kind", and that he should direct his other suggestions to the appropriate departments.

First breakthrough

If this rebuff worried Cooke, he didn't show it. Three years later, while on a student fellowship to the United States, he wrote an unsolicited letter offering himself as the BBC's film critic. The BBC politely declined this opportunity, too.

And then came Cooke's first breakthrough. In March 1934, he spotted a billboard in Boston: "BBC Fires Prime Minister's Son".

Presenting American Half Hour with the then US ambassador in 1935
The story concerned the man in possession of the film critic's job, Stanley Baldwin's son, Oliver. Cooke cabled the BBC to say that he would be willing to travel back to London for an interview provided he was a guaranteed a place on the short-list.

The new talks director replied that they would see him - but "without obligation".

Undeterred, Cooke boarded the Aquitania, arrived in Southampton eight days later, and 24 hours later was given the job.

And the rest was history? Not quite.

When Cooke returned to take up the job six months later, he came with a new American wife, and already nurturing dreams of leaving Britain for ever and setting up home in New York.

Put matters straight

He was helped by the Abdication of Edward VIII. The London representative of the American radio network NBC employed him to broadcast night and day throughout the ten days of the crisis. The money he earned enabled him to emigrate.

And then he had to start woo-ing the BBC all over again. This time, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

Cooke reckoned that most people in Britain suffered from a Hollywood-induced misconception of what America and Americans were like. It would be his task to put matters straight, preferably in a 15 minute weekly talk.

Alistair Cooke broadcasting

The trouble was, this small field was already fully occupied by a celebrated American journalist, Raymond Gram Swing, and his American Commentary.

Cooke was not so easily deterred and his first breakthrough came in 1938, with a programme called Mainly About Manhattan, which, as its name suggests, was supposed to be confined to stories from New York.

But it lasted for 19 weeks, and was, in many ways, the Letter from America in embryo.

The approach of war put an end to such frippery, and although Cooke continued to harass his managers, he found it hard to break into the charmed circle occupied by Swing and his American rivals.

Low point

On January 22 1940, he wrote to no less a figure than the deputy director-general of the BBC suggesting (yet again) "a regular talk, a sort of diary of a country at peace, in style and form like Mainly About Manhattan, but spanning a wider field to be called, say, A Letter from America."

The reply he received marked one of the lowest points in Cooke's dealings with the BBC.

It came from the assistant director of programme planning, Harmon Grisewood: "Whilst I think there is need for the USA to understand the British situation, I do not feel that at this stage there is an equivalent need for us to understand the American point of view."

Cooke had failed to detect that an embattled Britain had better things to do than concern itself with what was happening in a country which, inexplicably, was still watching the war from the sidelines.

There was some BBC work for Cooke during the rest of the war but it wasn't until early 1946 that his long-held ambition was fulfilled.

By great good fortune, a friendly manager, Lindsay Wellington, was despatched to the US to promote and expand the BBC's role, and Wellington spotted the potential of a frustrated Letter-writer.

Alistair Cooke's American Letter began its first 13-week run on 24 March 1946, changed its name to Letter from America in 1950 - and the rest really is history.

Nick Clarke is the author of Alistair Cooke,the Biography - published by Orion paperback.


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