Tuesday 27 November 2012

Pick of the Pops 1977

The juxtaposition of punk and disco makes fascinating viewing for those of us watching the 1977 Top of the Pops repeats (Thursday nights BBC Four).  It remains uncertain whether 1978 re-broadcasts will go ahead, sans Savile-fronted editions, next year. Here’s hoping they do.

Anyhow, before we leave 1977 here’s a chance to hear Alan Freeman counting down the hits from July of that year in a Pick of the Pops show on Radio 1 in 1991. Music from Barbra Streisand, Carole Bayer Sager, The Stranglers, Kenny Rogers, ONJ, Boney M, Gladys Knight & the Pips, ELP, The Jacksons and Hot Chocolate.

Right is the Radio Times billing for the edition shown last week. The unnamed “Radio 1 DJ” turned out to be Peter Powell’s first show.

Friday 23 November 2012

The Second Tower of Babel

The piazza outside the New Broadcasting House has been pressed into service quite a bit of late; mainly news crews filming BBC management and talking to other journalists. It’s the new extension of the existing Broadcasting House, the art deco edifice that was completed in 1932. Variously described at the time as a ‘petrified dreadnought’, ‘a profane cathedral’, this ‘temple of the arts and muses’ was celebrating its 50th anniversary when this programme, The Second Tower of Babel, was broadcast.

Here Wynford Vaughan-Thomas “takes us back in time – down the endless corridors to investigate the many worlds of sound created within this ‘tower within a tower’ – this ‘Second Tower of Babel’.”

The Second Tower of Babel was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 19 December 1982. The producer is Dilly Barlow.

Hear more about the early days of BH on The BBC and all That this afternoon (and next week) on BBC Radio 4.

Monday 12 November 2012


The place: Marconi House, London. The date: Tuesday 14 November 1922. The occasion: the first ever broadcast by the newly-formed British Broadcasting Company.

Behind the microphone Arthur Burrows, the BBC’s Programme Director. At 6 p.m. he read the first news bulletin – twice – once at normal speed and then again more slowly. Items were punctuated with a chiming clock, actually Burrows at the tubular bells.

This week the BBC has a number of on-air celebrations to mark the 90 years since that inaugural broadcast.

Here’s my own contribution to the event, 90 years of radio in 90 minutes, or thereabouts. It’s in rough chronological order but I sometimes dart around the years to make up some of the individual sequences. There was plenty I wanted to include but either didn’t have the recordings or they just didn’t fit. There’s plenty missing too, nothing to represent Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales for instance. It reflects my own radio interests and, of course, my own recordings over the years.

Some material is sourced from the CD 75 Years of the BBC and the LP 50 Years of Broadcasting kindly digitised by Andy Howells. Thanks also to David Lloyd for a couple of items from his Radio Moments collection. 

Here are some of the BBC90 programmes to listen out for:

Tuesday 13 November
Radio 2 – The History of Music Radio with Paul Gambacinni (6 part series)

Wednesday 14 November
All BBC stations – Radio Reunited
Radio 2 – Simon Mayo Drivetime from the Science Museum
Radio 2 – The Listeners’ Archive with Simon Mayo

Friday 16 November
Radio 4 Extra - 90 by 90 The Full Set (continues throughout the month)

Sunday 18 November
BBC 6 Music – The Listeners Archive with Steve Lamacq

Monday 19 November
Radio 4 – Revolutionary Radio with Fi Glover

Friday 23 November
Radio 4 – The BBC and All That

The Radio Game – All the Answers

Well how did you do? Last month I posted The Radio Game, a Radio 4 quiz about broadcasting history that was part of the BBC’s 60th anniversary celebrations.  

I’d like to say I was inundated with emails in response to the quiz but that would be stretching a point! Anyway here’s Barry Took with The Radio Game – All the Answers, a programme that was broadcast on Sunday 7 November 1982.  

When first researching this post I attempted the quiz back in September 2011 and scored 43 out of 60.

Friday 9 November 2012

Fun at One - I’m Christopher Morris, Christopher Morris I Am

If Radio 1 wanted comedy that was edgy and subversive, they got it with Chris Morris. Though best known for his TV series The Day Today (“slamming the wasps from the pure apple of truth”) and, most controversially, Brass Eye (“one young kiddie on Cake cried all the water out of his body”) Morris enjoyed a brief, but equally controversial, spell on the nation’s favourite during the 1990s.

Chris Morris was a radio obsessive and first got into broadcasting whilst still at university as the student reporter on Radio West. After graduating he joined the trainee scheme at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, learning the ropes of production and presentation.

It was back to Bristol, on the BBC local station, with a show called No Known Cure that he developed his style of broadcasting that was put into effect at GLR and on national radio: the cutting up of news headlines and vox pops, bizarre phone calls, made-up names, portentous voiceovers and so on.

At the same time as his Radio Bristol programmes, Morris ended up on the revamped Greater London Radio. One of his comic creations on this show was the inept spoof DJ Wayne Carr (pictured above) – sounding not a million miles away from Mike Smash or Dave Doubledecks.  

The first appearance on Radio 1 was tucked away, out of harm’s way, in the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Day 1990, at a time when most of the nation is slumped in front of the telly. The show was not without controversy when Morris suggested that the Pet Shop Boys next collaboration should be with Myra Hindley. It was more than three years before he returned to the station.

Meanwhile, working with Armando Iannucci, he went onto launch Radio 4’s On the Hour, the big break that led to the TV work. Morris continued with occasional shows on GLR but made it back to Radio 1 in 1994 with The Chris Morris Music Show – the emphasis was as much on the music as it was the comedy. This series notoriously got Morris and Radio 1 into trouble, especially the infamous ‘obituaries’ for Michael Heseltine and, prophetically, Jimmy Savile.

Morris was back at Radio 1 between 1997 and 1999 with the post-midnight black comedy series Blue Jam. A couple of appearances in 2000 on Mary Anne Hobbs’s The Breezeblock was his last radio work.    

You can read more about Chris Morris and download many of his radio shows on the @cookdandbombd website. In the meantime, back to that first show on Radio 1. Apparently the BBC don’t have a copy of the two-hour show and I can’t find one online. I’d like to say I’ve uncovered a copy but unfortunately all I have is the first twenty minutes. So here is part of The Chris Morris Christmas Show first heard on 25 December 1990.

Thursday 8 November 2012

They Read The News

“This is London” they would intone, then it was a quick blast of Lillibullero, the pips and into the World News. But what of the faces behind the voices of those BBC World Service announcers? Well every now and again the London Calling magazine used to publish their mug shots, in fact it was almost an annual event.

For this post I’m recalling the names from 1975 when we got a potted biography for most members of the team. All you’ll see they range from the very detailed (Pam Creighton) to the lightweight (Peter King). I’m presenting them as written with no indication as to what has happened to these ladies and gentlemen since. 

Brian Ashen
Born in London and educated in Colchester, he worked briefly for a merchant bank before joining the BBC as a finance assistant in 1964. He became a studio manager, and then switched to announcing. His interests include music, reading and archaeology. He also likes walking, particularly when he can look at a village church and a country pub along the way. In London he spends much of his time visiting galleries and museum, and he collects furniture, china, glass and books.

Michael Ashbee
After Cambridge (where he was a choral scholar) and war service in the Army (which took him to the Far East) he joined the BBC as an announcer in 1949 and has had a spell in Nigeria coaching newsreaders and teaching English. This year, incidentally, he plans to holiday in Nigeria resuming contact with many old friends. His family and his garden keep him busy, he says, but he finds time to play the tuba in a brass band on Sundays and sings in a choir occasionally. His hobby is collecting old photographs.

Ashley Hodgson
Born in Claygate, Surrey, his father was a dentist. Ashley was commissioned in the Royal Signals, serving in Greece and the Middle East. After demobilisation tried several jobs including stock controller for a large chain of stores and a spell with British Rail. Joined the BBC on the engineering side in 1956, worked in control room and on transmitters, then became a studio manager and finally an announcer in 1969. Twice wed, he has a grown-up son by his first marriage and now a young family-a 6-year old boy and twin boys of 4 years. His wife is a teacher. Likes putting on amateur plays, writing children’s stories, walking, sailing and sketching.

Leslie Tucker
Born in Ramsgate, Kent, he has spent all his working life in the BBC External Services, entering as a very junior transmitter engineer in 1942. After 10 years in studio operations, he took up announcing. He became Chief Assistant (Presentation) in 1973, is in charge of newsreading and announcing in the World Service and is responsible for all presentation matters in London and in relay bases overseas. His great interests are his family, European church architecture, Hollywood musicals, Mozart, Billie Holliday, and cooking for his friends.

John Touhey
Born in London in 1937, and educated at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich. After National Service, he joined the BBC as a studio manager. His interests include music, reading theatre, and food and drink. He lives in a book-lined flat near Battersea Park and pays frequent visits to plays, ballet, recitals and the local pub. Says he makes futile attempts to keep fit by unconvincing appearances on the tennis court.

Ian Gordon
Born in 1924 in New York of Scots father, American mother. Lived in New York and Paris until he was 15. Says he feels politically neutral in Britain but is a fervent Democrat-by-adoption in the United States: his grandmother and Franklin Roosevelt’s mother were sisters. Ian went to Milton Academy, USA, and then to Harrow in England. Spent nine years in the British army, including service in Burma, and worked for two years for ABC in Perth, Western Australia, before joining the BBC in 1952. Has written 12 books mostly under his full name of Ian Fellowes-Gordon.

Bob Berry
Born in 1943 in South London and now lives on the Essex coast. He joined the BBC in 1965 as a studio manager and has been announcing since 1967. He has been married for four years and says he supports as aging sports car, two demanding cats, and a healthy crop of weeds, sometimes described as a garden. Likes the guitar, both classical and folk/rock, and enjoys Baroque organ music. His other hobby is sailing and he is particularly interested in the history of working sail of the 19th and early 20th century in Britain and Northern Europe. He presents Strike Up the Band on World Service every week.

Pippa Harben, Pam Creighton, Ann Every and Meryl O'Keefe
Pippa Harben was born at Bath, educated in Bristol, and read history at Cambridge. She worked for a time as a trainee buyer at a big West End store in London and decided it was not the life for her. So she came to the BBC as a researcher and found it fascinating to find out the facts and figures of all kinds of situations for the News and other programmes. Then she moved to programme operations before finally to announcing. She reads a lot, loves films, makes beer and wine and says she really works to support two vast cats!

Pam Creighton was born in New Delhi and lived all over India and Pakistan for 18 years except for five years at Cheltenham Ladies College. Her father worked for the North Western Railway and for the governments of India and Pakistan. Pam joined the BBC as a studio manager 20 years ago and started announcing in 1957. Now she lives in a large old house in Twickenham, a stone’s throw from the River Thames where she has designed her own furniture and fireplaces. She comes from a musical family, has studied the piano and ballet, and has a collection of over 1,000 LP records (personal favourites: Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams and Britten) and discs of Dixieland jazz and the big bands. She has extensive hi-fi equipment as her home, runs the local music club and presents a 20-minute programme on new classical releases each week in the World Service (New Records). She is an expert on gardening, travels widely, reads science fiction and loves cricket and rowing. And all that seems a very full life for anyone!

Ann Every says she had a sheltered English boarding school education before becoming a speech therapist. Then she decided to see what other people did, and tried being an au pair in Scandinavia, a van driver in London and a scientific worker in a government office, before joining the BBC as a studio manager with the intention of staying one year. Sixteen years later she is still with the BBC and lives with her cat in a little Victorian terrace house in London near the River Thames. Her hobby is sculpture.

Meryl O’Keefe was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated in South Africa where she began her radio career in the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Johannesburg and Cape Town (she was the first woman newsreader). She says she left to join the BBC in London to gain wider experience and she has certainly done that. She has worked in radio and television in Britain for 20 years… as a reported, presenter, disc jockey and newsreader. During her career she has been thrown from a bolting horse in Brighton’s traffic; washed ashore at Southsea in a Navy diver’s suit two sizes too big; strapped to a dock harbour; hauled to the top of a TV mast and photographed among the passing clouds. She considers travel a vital part of life and perhaps that is why she finds the international atmosphere of the World Service so enjoyable. She likes music, theatre, ski-ing and camping around Europe in an old motor caravan.

Peter King
Born on April the First, 1921, and says that things have never really improved! Grew up in the Isle of Thanet on the Kent coast and contends that at least this was lucky, for it gave him a love of fishing and cricket. It is a matter of great pride to him that his son, after coaching from Knott and Underwood, smashed the blade of his size three cricket bat with a gigantic hit before his 12th birthday had dawned. Unfortunately it was from his own father’s bowling. Peter says that he likes Peggy Lee, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, the Restoration period, old books, furniture, pictures and silver. Dislikes waste, greenfly, and people who do stupid things because they have pieces of paper which say they should.

Chris Chaplin
Educated at Watford and London University, he gave up a short career in veterinary research to join the BBC engineering division in 1963. Five years later he left the BBC to work for a year on a schools radio programme for the4 Malawi government, returning to the BBC as a World Service announcer. Like to travel and says that he is rapidly developing talents as a gardener and general home handy-man to help eke out the household budget. Also enjoys the theatre and cinema, chess and oil painting.

Peter Reynolds
Born in Scotland but has lived in Rhodesia and South Africa. After Cambridge, became a captain in the Royal Engineers. Joined the BBC in 1947 and became entitle to an extended holiday in 1972. ‘Do something useful’ everyone told him. So he sailed the Atlantic in a small yacht. His next holiday is a week’s gliding. He is intensely proud of his family – his wife was formerly with the BBC – and lives in a Victorian house near the Royal Botanical gardens at Kew. Other interests are music, languages and mathematics.

Barry Moss
Born in Wellington, New Zealand (where his father still lives). Came to Britain in 1950 to study musical composition, and stayed. Drifted out of music and joined the BBC as an announcer in 1966; now lives in London with two daughters who share many of his interests. He is a Buddhist and is interested in oriental philosophy and religion. Says that he questions the principle of a consumer society, as accepted in the West and as spreading to the East, and describes his hobbies as music of all kinds… and silence.

Peter Shoesmith
Born in 1936 and grew up in the south coast town of Bexhill-on-Sea. He went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, had two years in the army, and then had his first professional engagement as an actor in his hometown. During the next seven years he appeared in theatre all over Britain, in addition to several radio and TV plays. In 1965 he presented three schools series for commercial TV, and since 1970 has worked for the BBC in TV, domestic radio and the World Service where, in addition to newsreading, he has contributed 20 talks to Letter from London. He lives in Wimbledon and enjoys driving, gardening and reading … he says he’d like to own a bookshop one day.

Roger Collinge
Born in 1924 in Birmingham. Spent some time with an amateur acting company before joining the RAF. Served in India and became interested in broadcasting when he linked up with Radio SEAC in Colombo. Returned to Birmingham to join the BBC and then to London as a newsreader for the World Service. Lives at Biggin Hill in Kent, a stone’s throw from the aerodrome, so it is not surprising to find that he is still very interested in aero affairs. He is married and has one daughter, a lawyer. He likes early Italian music.

Lindsay MacDonald
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1928, he read music and modern languages at University of New Zealand, supporting himself by periodic announcing in Wellington. After graduating, he joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, and finally left for England in 1956 to continue with his studies of the organ. He had a short spell as a school teacher and then came an offer to join the BBC. Apart from playing the organ (and searching out interesting instruments in Britain and in Europe generally); he travels a great deal, particularly in France, and collects books. He is married to a New Zealander and they have a nine-year-old daughter.

Keith Bosley
Lives with his singer wife, son, foster-daughter and cat in a house which needs a coat of paint, he says, and a garden which badly needs attention. He spends much of his time writing, translating, reviewing poetry or playing keyboard instruments for his wife. His favourite pastimes are entertaining friends and exploring the countryside on a cycle. He likes Indian food, Hungarian wine and Japanese crackers.

George Eason
Born in Berkshire in 1938, grew up in the English countryside, and went to Oxford University. Married with three children. Passionately interested in music, ranging from Palestrina to Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and beyond. Likes reading, English literature and modern European history.

John Gordon
He was an announcer in the 1950s but had an ambition to become an actor and went to drama school. He had several years in repertory around Britain and was seen on television. The he became a TV announcer in Southampton before rejoining the BBC and producing plays and arts programmes for the African Service. After several years, which included two spells in East Africa, he returned to newsreading.


John Wing
Was born in Cardiff in 1928 and appeared as the boy hero in serial plays at the age of 14. He has worked in Forces broadcasting and in BBC radio and television. Between his periods of duty at the World Service microphones, he retreats rapidly to his home in Hertfordshire where he relaxes with his rose garden, his antique furniture and a vast collection of records.

In addition Peter Lewis, Tony Szeleynski and John Stone were pictured (below) but no information was provided.

The above was all taken from the February, March and April editions of London Calling from 1975 very kindly loaned to me by Chrissy Brand.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Carry On Up the Charts

I suspect that many of you reading this post will, in your teenage years, have spent Sunday afternoons with your finger poised over the pause button as you taped the chart hits of the day. A pastime denied todays download generation.  

This month sixty years ago the New Musical Express published the first weekly 'Record Hit Parade' chart based on record sales – 78 r.p.m. discs at the time of course – with Al Martino’s Here in My Heart being the first chart-topper.

Chart shows based on sheet music sales had been broadcast on Radio Luxembourg since 1948. On the BBC Pick of the Pops was still three years off, and it didn’t feature the hit parade until 1958.

Celebrating all things chart-related is this BBC Radio 2 documentary, Carry On Up the Charts, presented by the king of the countdown Alan Freeman. It was broadcast on 19 August 2000 and also features Paul Gambaccini, Dr Fox, Pete Murray, Johnny Beerling, Andy Parfitt, Billboard journalist Fred Bronson and David Roberts, the editor of the now defunct Guinness British Hit Singles book. (I've edited out most of the music).  

This Saturday (10th) and next (17th) Tony Blackburn will be counting down the best-selling songs of each year from 1952 to 2012 on Pick of the Pops.

BBC Four is showing the documentary Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top 10 on Friday 16 November. The following Friday you can see The Joy of the Single.

Monday 5 November 2012

Countdown to the White House 1980

As Americans head to the polls this week for the Presidential election I take a look back at some of the radio coverage of the 1980 election when Reagan first came to power.

That election took place at a time of low economic growth and the foreign policy entanglements of the US hostages held in Iran. Shortly before the election diplomatic moves were underway to secure the release of the hostages. Here’s the news headlines from Radio Luxembourg on 3 November 1980 read by Rob Jones.

The BBC’s Washington Correspondent at the time was Clive Small, here reporting on the hostage situation and its impact on the election outcome on 4 November 1980.

Election Day itself was 4 November and the BBC’s coverage started just after midnight on the 5th with Brian Redhead introducing Countdown to the White House.  

Over on Radio 2 broadcasting through the night from 1 a.m. to 7.30 a.m. was the American Election Special co-hosted by Sarah Kennedy, taking care of the music, and the ever-versatile John Dunn, looking after the politics. In this clip John is joined by Clark Todd.

Dipping into the international coverage this is William McCrory on Voice of America.

In the early hours of the morning (UK time) Carter conceded defeat to Reagan. This is the IRN news bulletin at 3 a.m. with Carol Allen.

At 6 a.m. Radio 4 carried an extended edition of Today with John Timpson in New York and Libby Purves in London. In this recording you’ll also hear from BBC correspondents Paul Reynolds, Clive Small and Peter Ruff.  

Reflecting on the result later that day is Clive Small.

Meanwhile that evening Radio Moscow’s World Service seemed to emphasise the low turnout of 53% as against the Soviet Union’s 100%.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Radio Lives – Alistair Cooke

Journalist, broadcaster, socio-historian or consummate story-teller, take your pick. For 58 years Letter from America provided listeners with an insight into American politics, culture and history mixed with a little homespun philosophy, not to mention reveries on New England in the fall and his beloved golf.

Letter from America ran on the BBC Home Service and Radio 4 between 1946 until Alistair Cooke’s death in 2004. Initially the BBC seemed reluctant to commission the series but eventually it came to be seen as a broadcasting institution; and anyway Alistair was never going to relinquish it, even recording the occasional letter from his hospital bed with the BBC in London not realising anything was amiss.

The series had its genesis in the broadcasts that Cooke made both before and during the Second World War, and the love affair that he developed with all things American during his childhood.

Composing those letters, pounded out on his faithful Royal typewriter, from his New York apartment was a world away from his Methodist upbringing in Salford and Blackpool. At school the young Alfred Cooke (in 1930 he changed his name by deed poll to Alistair) flourished at matters both academic and sporting and, on a scholarship, he progressed to Jesus College in Cambridge. His extra-curricular activities were devoted to the theatre – he founded the Mummers drama group – music, especially American jazz – “America called the tune of our leisure” he said – and literary - he drew cartoons and wrote film and theatre criticisms for Granta. But his two main ambitions were to write for The Manchester Guardian and work for the BBC. He more than fulfilled both of these, his association with the newspaper lasting 26 years and that with the Corporation over a 70 year period.

Cooke’s first connection with the United States came about quite by chance in 1932 through the auspices of the Commonwealth Fund which invited graduate applicants for two years study; he chose to study theatre production at Yale. One of the obligations of the fund was to travel for three months within the States, thus giving Cooke what was to be the first of many tours across the country that would later do so much to inform his weekly letters.

That first tour also allowed Alistair to follow one of his other passions, the cinema, and provided an excuse to visit Hollywood. He arranged introductions to film-makers and actors on the basis of sending interviews back to the Observer newspaper. Remarkably he struck up a friendship with Charlie Chaplin; he even invited him to be his best man at his wedding. It was the first of many starry friendships and acquaintances over his lifetime that Cooke would drop into his letters – Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx and so on.

Although Cooke aspired to obtain American citizenship – it was a long process only completed in the early days of the war and leading to accusations that he was turning his back on his home nation in its darkest hour – he still made regular visits back to Britain. In early 1934 he chanced upon a headline in an American paper that read “BBC Fires Prime Minister’s Son”. It turned out that Oliver Baldwin, son of Stanley, had parted company as its film critic. Cooke fired off a cable to the BBC and, although initially told the position was not vacant, found himself back in London shortly afterwards.

Cooke’s first Cinema Talk broadcast went out live on Monday 8 October 1934. According to Nick Clarke’s biography of Cooke his first script showed a tone that was “light and conversational”, “mildly self-deprecating”, and “humorous, but with a clear and serious purpose. Cooke, the writer for radio, seems to have arrived almost fully formed”.    

With his Cinema Talk series continuing Cooke proposed a new programme on American life that eventually became The American Half-Hour, a 13-part series running from 6 April 1935. In that week’s Radio Times he explained the premise of the show:
It will try each week to bring to listeners, in an entertaining form, glimpses of American life, of American ways of thinking, and of American ideas, snatches of American music and idiom, recollections of famous incidents and crises in American history, topics of current American news clarified by an American correspondent in London, short readings from American poets and humorists, thumbnail biographies of Americans in the news, and, wherever possible, the actual voices of Americans famous in their professions.
Later the same year Cooke returned to the air with a talk on “the differences in vocabulary and idiom” between the States and Britain in English on Both Sides of the Atlantic; a theme he would often revisit in Letter from America. 

Spurred on by an extension to his Cinema Talk contract Alistair put together a programme of American ‘hobo’ songs called New York City to the Golden Gate, he would return to  American folk music a couple of years later and again in his 1970s series for BBC radio. At around the same time Fred Bate from America’s NBC commissioned a talk for the centenary of Mark Twain’s birth and a series of Sunday evening talks to New York called London Letter followed.

But Cooke’s major break in the States came about in 1936 with the impending abdication crisis. News was breaking in America but the deferential British press had yet to report it. Fred Bate asked Cooke to broadcast live his perspective on the news using a circuit from Broadcasting House. As events unfolded NBC installed a Post Office line into Cooke’s home and he broadcast back to the States some 400,000 words over the next ten days. Ironically in 1981 he would introduce the American PBS audience to the ITV drama of the story as part of the Masterpiece Theatre series: 
Tonight we are going to show for the first time in this country the whole version, seven episodes of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, the story of one of the most dramatic crises in the history of the British monarchy. This was the first voluntary abdication of an English king, which--it staggers me to realize now since I was there and broadcast about it to this country seven, eight, nine, a dozen times a day--occurred forty-five years ago in 1936. Because it was nothing if not romantic, it was very simple then, and now, to oversimplify it as a case of true love versus the establishment.
NBC was full a praise for Cooke’s efforts whilst the atmosphere at the BBC had turned a little frosty as, the Director of Talks claimed, he had “become increasingly difficult about sending in scripts and conforming to normal procedure”. And anyway the NBC’s cheques were considerably bigger. Prompted by this Cooke returned to America for good in 1937.

Working freelance from his new base in New York Cooke again approached the BBC but they were already in negotiations with the journalist Raymond Gram Swing to become their main US commentator for a series of talks under the title American Commentary.  NBC came to the rescue with a weekly talk of “reviews, criticisms and personal musings, but eschewing politics” and interval talks during relays from the Metropolitan Opera.  

There was still the odd broadcast for the BBC but his next series came to fruition in July 1938 with I Hear America Singing which used popular songs to illustrate the social history of the United States.  This series was broadcast live from London but back in New York he was offered a new BBC programme Mainly About Manhattan – nineteen talks starting on 13 October.  It was just ‘Manhattan’ to ensure he didn’t overstep the wider brief of Gram Swing. In 1940 Alistair Cooke wrote to the Deputy Director-General with a by now familiar suggestion: 
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: taking in two or three topics each time, touching on life away from the East Coast; on democratic festivals or celebrations it might be good for Britons to know about; on a new invention; a great man dead; on a new writer; on American experiments in democracy – the country teems with projects that are gallantly run. To be called, say, - A Letter from America.
The response from the BBC was as follows, and one which Alistair loved to quote in later years,  “Whilst I think there is need for the USA to understand the British; and indeed the European situation, I do not feel that at this stage there is an equivalent need for us to understand the American point of view”.

Cooke’s work during the war years was sporadic. He was given the opportunity to fill in on American Commentary for the 7 September 1940 talk and subsequently did a few more. For the Empire Service there was Pacific News Reel. But overall the Corporation thought he showed a “lack of considered political judgement”.

Following Pearl Harbour there were a number of broadcasts on America’s entry into the war and later on more regular American Commentary talks. Away from politics Alistair was the host of a transatlantic discussion programme Answering You. There was a similar co-production from April 1944 with Transatlantic Quiz in which two opposing teams tested each other’s knowledge of the other’s country (clip below). Cooke was, of course, at the New York end and Lionel Hale looked after the London team.  Panel members included Professor Denis Brogan, author Christopher Morley, critic John Mason Brown and, at one time or another David Niven, Eric Ambler, Sir Thomas Beecham and Peter Ustinov.  The quiz series was very successful and although it finished in 1947 there was a brief TV version and a further radio series in 1951. It returned to the BBC in 1979 with question masters Louis Allen in the USA and Anthony Quinton (later Gordon Clough) in the UK.  It also spawned the long-running Round Britain Quiz (1947 to date).   

The cessation of hostilities also brought American Commentary to a close.  It was former head of the BBC’s American Operations and now Controller of Programmes Lindsay Wellington that finally agreed to what was initially called American Letter. At the time Cooke wrote that “it will be a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside about American life and people and places in the American news”.  The first talk was broadcast on 24 March 1946, initially, as was the BBC way, on a 13 week contract. In the event it lasted some 58 years, or 2,869 programmes. 

From the start all the elements that became Cooke’s trademark, his “applied artlessness”, are present: the anecdotal, tangential approach to events in the news; the historical perspectives; the measured, almost mesmeric pace.  The voice, as he would later comment, had a pronunciation that was British but “the tune, very often, is American”.

It was a talk on 24 February 1950 about the reaction to the British General Election that saw, for reasons that nobody can remember, the change of billing from American Letter to Letter from America.  Contrary to what you might read elsewhere about the programme it did not strictly continue with the same title throughout or, indeed, that Alistair read every letter. It is true that he guarded the programme very closely, and indeed his BBC paymasters and producers eventually gave him free reign and tinkered with it at their peril – as Radio 4 controller Ian McIntyre discovered in October 1977.   

Time and again Cooke was not prepared to give up the weekly broadcast. In 1958, for example, a trip to Europe led to a Letter from England, actually written on board the Queen Mary on his return to the States.  And so it was in early 1965 when he took a break from writing for The Guardian whilst he and his wife went on a world tour. From February to May the programme was billed as Letter from the World. The Radio Times for 28 February read:

Alistair Cooke is taking a leave of absence for three months and is going on a holiday round the world. Happily for listeners he confesses: ’I should feel bound and gagged if I were asked to desert my first love – broadcasting – for even three months.’ So his weekly Letter from America has become Letter from the World, and may be broadcast from anywhere along his route through Turkey, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan   

Meanwhile the BBC Overseas Service was also carrying the programme at the time and Head of Talks Gerard Mansell wanted to make his own arrangements. As a consequence the overseas broadcasts of Letter from America were written and read by the likes of Gerald Priestland, Leonard Parkin and Anthony Wigan.

The programme reached its 1000th edition in March 1968 and the BBC arranged a celebratory dinner back in London. The 1960s saw considerable change in the States and Cooke was able to provide an alternative perspective to the reports from the BBC’s foreign correspondents. There was still some disdain that he could gloss over the turmoil of civil rights and Vietnam and veteran BBC newsman Charles Wheeler accused him of often “sitting on the fence”. But what he was able to do, in commenting on these major events – take his letters on Watergate for instance – is cut through the ‘noise’ and offer a breadth and depth of knowledge, and a clarity, that no other reporter could offer.

Radio Times 16 May 1963

Although the letters often took their cue from the week’s news there were times when events would overtake the content, Cooke having to record each programme about 48 hours in advance of the first broadcast. Such an event occurred in 1968 when President Johnson declared he would not be running for re-election after the prepared talk had been despatched on the subject of the presidential nominations. The broadcast went ahead anyway but not before the Director of Radio asked Alistair if he might see his way clear to preparing a standby tape for such occasions. “There’s no evidence that the standby tape was ever made”, concluded Nick Clarke.

Whilst Alistair often undertook visits around the States he would only sometimes ‘follow the story’ for his Guardian pieces. He covered America from New York so that his America “was rich in politics, but politics seen as ordinary Americans saw it, including from television”. It was something of a fluke, “a casual chance in a thousand”, that meant he was an eyewitness to one of the pivotal moments in 60s America, the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy in June 1968.   

Some of his British audience mistakenly mistook Cooke for American such was his close association with the country. But to his American television audience he was the quintessential Englishman introducing the arts magazine Omnibus between 1952 and 1961 and doing the ‘tops and tails’ presenting the best of British drama on the PBS show Masterpiece Theatre (1971-1992). His 13-part TV series America: A Personal History of the United States was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic; the book sold over 2 million copies and won him an honorary knighthood.

Between 1974 and 1987 Alistair established a fruitful relationship with producer Alan Owen in which, over a number of series, they reviewed the history of American popular music, with an emphasis on Cooke’s first love, jazz. These shows were variously broadcast on Radio 3 or Radio 4 and included The First Half Century, Alistair Cooke’s American Collection and George Gershwin: His life and music. Writing about this latter series in the Radio Times of 6 June 1987 Cooke said: 
Over the 13 years that Alan Owen, my producer, and I have been working together on American popular music, the conviction dawned slowly but surely on both of us that of all the very gifted man who made the 1920s and 30s a golden age of American song, Gershwin more and more looks like the truest original.
In the late 1970s three series ran on Radio 3, the first of which titled Alistair Cooke’s 1920s was followed by visits to the 1930s and 1940s. A final round-up programme aired on 9 December 1979 – The Golden Age 1920-1950 – and although it rattles through the tunes at a fair pace it provides a rare example of his work away from the weekly letters. 

With the passing years Cooke was becoming something of a broadcasting legend, if only by dint of his longevity. Although he was often drawing inspiration from what he read in the newspapers or saw on the television the letters were infused his own recollections and anecdotes, perfecting “the journalism of personal witness.”   According to a Sunday Times profile “a past Radio 4 controller had said, only half in jest, that anyone who flew across the Atlantic to sack Cooke would be shot down by his legions of fans on both shores. The decision was taken ‘at the highest level’ to allow him to ‘to die at the microphone’ if he so wished.” That was almost the case.

By 2004 with failing health Cooke was now finding it more difficult to write and record his letters. Whereas before he might have sat down at the typewriter and completed it in a couple of hours it now took him three days. “I’ve had heart disease for a long time and I’m not up to it” he told The Times in early March of that year. “I’ve been feeling low now for about two months. When I’ve done my talk I used to collapse. I began to wonder if I could go on and I can’t”.

His last Letter from America aired on 20 February 2004; there was no mention of it being his last. During the following week he had intended to record a couple of carefully crafted sentences announcing his retirement but, to Alistair’s annoyance, the news leaked out in advance. As a result the next broadcast just had a few words from the continuity announcer before a selected repeat from December 2001. This is how it played out on the World Service:

Just a month later Alistair Cooke had died, aged a venerable 95. 

Alistair Cooke 1908-2004

This week the BBC has launched (along the lines of the Desert Island Discs archive) an online collection of over 900 letters, about a third of the total output.  But for this post I’ll give you a chance to hear a talk that’s not available from 1 February 1985.

Next week there’s a re-assessment of Letter from America in a 4-part Radio 4 series from Alvin Hall called In Alistair Cooke’s Footsteps.  

The photo of Alistair is courtesy of Roger Clark.
The Gary cartoon comes from The Sunday Times 7 March 2004
My sources include editions of Letter from America and documentaries about the programme plus:
Alistair Cooke: The Biography by Nick Clarke (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1999)
The Americans by Alistair Cooke (Penguin 1980)
Letter from America by Alistair Cooke with introduction by Simon Jenkins (Penguin Books 2005)  

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