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Alistair Cooke's America (1972-73)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Alistair Cooke's America (1972-73)
BBC/Time-Life Films for BBC2, 12/11/1972-04/02/1973
13 x 50 min episodes, colour
ProducerMichael Gill
ScriptAlistair Cooke
NarratorAlistair Cooke

Journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke narrates a personal history of his adopted home.

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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

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Video Clips
Complete episode: 'The First Impact' (49:34)
Extract (0:05:28)
Authored Documentary