AMERICA, by Alistair Cooke (1972-73)
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.