Alistair Cooke's America - 05 - Inventing a Nation
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For more than 50 years Radio 4 listeners based their impressions of the USA on Alistair Cooke's weekly Letter From America. In 1973 Cooke wrote the critically acclaimed TV series America, widely regarded as one of the best documentary series ever made. In the wake of Cooke's death earlier this year, BBC Four viewers have the chance to see the series again.
1. The First Impact
The first programme is a personal memoire of Alistair Cooke's infatuation with America and its effect on his life.
2. The New Found Land
Tracing the settlements and influence of the Spanish in the West and the French in the East.
3. Home From Home
Following the English dissenters and adventurers who settled in America in the 16th and 17th centuries.
4. Making a Revolution
America's struggle to gain independence from Britain.
5. Inventing a Nation
How the 13 American colonies were unified after winning independence from the British and the formation of the government.
6. Gone West
Pioneers and the dispossession of Native Americans.
7. A Firebell in the Night
A look at slavery in the Southern States and the causes and effects of the Civil War.
8. Domesticating Wilderness
The great push west by the settlers including the Mormons, the founding of Salt Lake City and the crossing of the continent by railroad.
9. Money on the Land
The rise of business and technology: Chicago, railroads, Edison, oil, Rockefeller and the moneyed classes.
10. The Huddled Masses
What was the impact of the flood of immigrants coming from Europe at the turn of the 19th century?
11. The Promise Fulfilled and the Promise Broken
Prosperity and politics in the 1920s.
The USA as a world military power and the growth of the United Nations.
13. The More Abundant Life
Alistair Cooke concludes the series by looking at contemporary America in the early 1970s and how it had diverged from the original aims of the settlers.
AMERICA, by Alistair Cooke (1972-73)
The late British-born American journalist, Alistair Cooke, traces the history of America - from the eve of discovery to the modern day.
Through his BBC Radio series, 'Letters From America', Alistair Cooke reported on every aspect of life in the United States for over 50 years. In 1973 he wrote and presented 'Alistair Cooke's America', his critically acclaimed TV series, which became a hit on both sides of the atlantic, generated a best-selling book and earned Cooke an invitation to address congress during the bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Cooke died in March 2004, just a month after his last-ever letter from America.
The early success of the authored documentary as a TV phenomena was built on three key productions: Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (BBC, 1969), Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973) and Alistair Cooke's America (BBC, 1972), all directed by Michael Gill. And of these three highly personalised programmes, America is the one that proclaims itself loudest as the sole vision of a single man. Right from the start, the veteran broadcaster and journalist sets out to make it clear that his series is a very individual examination of his adopted country. The inaugural programme, 'The First Impact', offers an intimate account of his passion for America and its effect on his life.
Lancashire-born Cooke, best known for his Letter From America broadcasts for BBC radio (1946-2004), was equally adept at television, where his distinctive voice and imposing screen presence brought authority to the medium. However, an underlying conservatism makes the series seem rather old-fashioned at times, although there is no denying the presenter's emotional involvement with his subject. Cooke's deliberations on the America Civil War and slavery are as frank as they are moving, as is his description of the dispossession of native Americans by European settlers.
His views on America's industrialisation, the development of mass culture and the nation's move towards being a global military power, on the other hand, are less satisfying. A modern commentator, and certainly one less in love with his subject, would almost certainly serve up a more critical analysis of contemporary American history, although to his credit Cooke never set out to be an unbiased observer; he always acknowledged his perspective was a highly personal one.
The series unfortunately ends rather weakly. The final episode, 'The More Abundant Life', compares contemporary America in the early 1970s with the aims and objectives of the first European settlers, although there appears little rationale for doing this. The implication that America had, in effect, a year zero undermines Cooke's cogent attempts over previous weeks to create a vision of the nation as a living, breathing, evolving entity with deeply tangled roots.
Inevitably, Cooke's efforts at interpreting America for a British audience say as much about the broadcaster himself as his subject matter, especially his discussions of post-war events - a period he personally experienced. America is, however, a landmark series and its undoubted success helped cement the future of the authored documentary.
Anthony Clark (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/549860/)
Cooke broadcast from the US for 58 years
In his 58 years reporting US life in his Letter from America, the late Alistair Cooke offered his own view on some of the biggest events of the last half-century, as well as more personal moments, as these highlights from the archives reveal.
How it began
Shortly after Letter from America's 50th anniversary Cooke addressed the Royal Television Society in New York on the history of the programme. As he explains in this extract from the lecture, when initially given the assignment, no one expected the programme to last quite as long as it did.
Two nations separated by one language
In reporting US life for more than 50 years, Alistair Cooke became more aware than many of George Bernard Shaw's observation that the US and the UK are "two nations divided by a common language". In a classic letter from 1998, he considers the differences between British and American English and the challenges they pose.
The last letter
Although not widely known at the time, Alistair Cooke's letter on 20 February 2004 was to be the last before his retirement. In this final broadcast, Cooke considers how the war in Iraq as well as domestic issues are key elements in the run-up to the US presidential elections .
Through his BBC Radio series, Letters From America, Alistair Cooke reported on every aspect of life in the United States for over 50 years. In 1972 he wrote and presented Alistair Cooke's America, his critically acclaimed TV series, which became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, generated a best-selling book and earned Cooke an invitation to make the principal address during the bicentennial celebrations of the First Continental Congress in 1974. Cooke died in March 2004, just a month after his last-ever letter from America.