by Allan Fish
(UK 1972 645m) DVD1/2
In Search of the Twelve Bar Blues
p Michael Gill d Michael Gill, David Heycock, Tim Slessor, Ann Turner w Alistair Cooke ph Roynon Raikes ed David Thomas, Alan Tyler m William Davies presented by Alistair Cooke
For over half a century Alistair Cooke presented his ‘Letter from America’ to eager radio listeners back home in Blighty. He was as much an institution of Anglo-Americanism as one could ever hope to meet. The British Cambridge educated journalist who finally went to America in 1932 and stayed there until his death, in his nineties, in 2004. There had been American commentators in London who had made an impact – Edward R.Murrow and Quentin Reynolds in the London blitz during the war perhaps most memorably – and yet Cooke truly did embody the best of both the new world and the old in one urbane, erudite, comforting package. When he finally died, it was as if a huge invisible bridge that stretched across the Atlantic, had been demolished.
Looking back over thirty years to when this series was first aired, it showcases just how much has happened since; technologically, artistically, and most importantly historically. America was then in the aftermath of the civil rights struggles, on the cusp of the Watergate affair and the Vietnam War was still ongoing. The opening credits to the very first episode, however, give an even more poignant reminder, in the form of the then freshly constructed twin towers of the WorldTradeCenter, that stood even more dominant over the Manhattan skyline than they did on that fateful day in September 2001. Later on in that same opening salvo, he takes a trip to another vanished landmark, the old New Orleans.
On another level, Cooke’s work may seem from another era of programming in this age, stuffed with the brilliance of Ken and Ric Burns’ all-encompassing histories of American history. Yet Cooke’s series was prefaced with that very term ‘a personal view’ and it is in the personal, the anecdotal, that Cooke’s gargantuan undertaking reaches its highest pinnacles. For people who want more detailed studies of such events as the War of Independence, the subduing of the Native American peoples, the Civil War, the Roaring Twenties, the Wall Street Crash, World Wars I & II, the Civil Rights movement and the space age, well there are other ports of call. Cooke sets out to give us a personal almanac, with notes at the foot of each frame, so to speak, both diverse, diverting and wholly idiosyncratic. He shows himself to be not only a lover of all things American but a preserver of what the nation once stood for, the American dream, not the nightmare of cynicism, hedonism and pleasure; as if the secular generations of the sixties and seventies had taken too literally Thomas Jefferson’s words about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson himself gets his moment in the spotlight, alongside such figures as Lincoln and the Roosevelts, as well as Benjamin Franklin, and such diverse people as H.L.Mencken, William Jennings Bryan and J.D.Rockefeller.
When Cooke first arrived in America, as he himself describes, “the fairyland of Manhattan was shattered with a nasty jolt of reality called the Depression.” And it’s at this crucial chronological crossroads that Cooke’s series really comes into its own. Up until then, his storytelling is strictly second or third-hand (some of it wonderful, such as his piece on the arrival of the immigrants through Ellis Island and description of old burlesque), but from this point on it’s his own acquaintances and history. His work is not merely a hagiography of his adopted home but also a warning. One can almost feel the dismay felt by the man at the onset of what could be perceived as the Fall of American Empire. He even goes so far as to say that he notices similarities between Gibbon’s analysis of that ancient fallen empire in Rome and the situation in 1970s America. Furthermore, it’s hard to see that he will have gotten any less worried by the events of the last thirty years. Even now, it reads as a testimony, a part of history.