6 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 60

The right tone of voice

Michael Vestey

ALISTAIR COOKE by Nick Clarke Weidenfeld, f20, pp. 405 MEMORIES OF THE GREAT AND THE GOOD by Alistair Cooke Pavilion Books, £16.99, pp. 255

One of the greatest skills of Alistair Cooke is to convey the impression to his listeners that he is speaking to them con- versationally without notes. Usually, it is only broadcasters with something of the actor within them who can accomplish this, though not always, as that other supreme broadcaster Richard Dimbleby showed. So it is not surprising to learn from this fasci- nating biography by Nick Clarke that Cooke might well have become an actor in the late Twenties when he was performing with the Cambridge Mummers.

Cooke is a brilliant stylist, both in his broadcasting and writing. Few listeners would have realised that he shut himself in a radio studio in New York, with the blinds drawn so that only his engineer and pro- ducer could see in, frequently reaching for a cigarette, wheezing and coughing his way through his scripted talk, occasionally look- ing up for approval, and leaving studied pauses between words, so urbane and mel- lifluous does the end result sound.

The comparison with Dimbleby is apt. Dimbleby's barely controlled emotions and vivid language in his dispatches from Belsen at the end of the war were brilliant and effective. Cooke, who was yards from where Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles in 1968, wrote in his Letter from America that he saw the fatally wounded presidential candidate bathed in the blueish light of the fluorescent tubes 'look- ing like a stunned choirboy from an open shirt and a limp huddle of limbs'.

Cooke also rejected the notion that America was a sick society:

for one do not feel like an accessory to a

crime and 1 reject almost as a frivolous obscenity the sophistry of collective guilt, the idea that I, or the American people, killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Francis Kennedy . . . With Edmund Burke I do not know how you can indict a whole nation.

It was this balance and sense of propor- tion about America, his adopted country, that endeared him to many and which also broke down transatlantic prejudices. His other gift is empathy, which he deployed with great charm in his encounters with the famous, often befriending them. At Cam- bridge he knew and liked both aesthetes and hearties, not sharing a particular pref- erence for either; Clarke describes this as a chameleon quality. So where did this self- confidence and strong ambition stem from?

Remarkably, from the back streets of Salford and Blackpool where he grew up and went to secondary school as Alfred Cooke, the son of an iron-fitter and a Methodist lay preacher; his elder brother Sam spent his life as a butcher's assistant and never resented Cooke's success.

His is the familiar story of how inspired teachers instilled in him a love of literature and learning, enabling him to go to Cam- bridge where Alfred metamorphosed into Alistair — he changed his first name by deed poll at the age of 22. Alfred Cooke didn't look quite right in the pages of Granta, which he both wrote for and ran.

After failing to get a First he seemed destined to fulfil the terms of his Blackpool Borough scholarship and train to be a teacher, but Cooke had other ideas. He was awarded a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to spend two years in the Unit- ed States studying theatre production. Had he remained in Cambridge or taken up teaching he might never have become entranced by America or graced the air- waves with his smooth but authoritative voice, what Kenneth Tynan described as 'a fluent, hands-in-pocket style'.

Letter from America, under that title, his own idea, began in 1950, though he had made many earlier broadcasts from Ameri- ca for the BBC. Careless about making money, he rarely questioned his fees. Ten years ago the BBC hadn't altered his fee of $400 a week for the previous 20 years. Advised by a tough lawyer, he only began to make serious money with the bestselling book of his BBC television series, America.

His difficulties with the BBC over the years are chronicled; the few attempts to either curtail his broadcasts or drop him were, thankfully, funked. Clarke, an excel- lent current affairs broadcaster himself, and clearly a fan of Cooke's, has not, how- ever, written a hagiography. He doesn't shrink from analysing Cooke's flaws — his second wife Jane described him as 'ego- centric, not an egotist' — the pain of his first marriage break-up, the uneasiness of his relationship with his family back in Blackpool and a certain remoteness from his children and step-children.

There is unlikely to be another Alistair Cooke, as broadcasting has changed too much. The BBC has publicly pledged that as long as his health holds out he will con- tinue to broadcast Letter from America. At the age of nearly 91 his voice is naturally a little shakier but remarkable nonetheless. An example of Cooke's elegant, obser- vant, and humorous writing can be found in Memories of the Great and the Good, 23 interviews and profiles of people he has known, met or written about over the years, from George Bernard Shaw to the golfer Bobby Jones. Other subjects include P. G. Wodehouse, Ronald Reagan and a short essay about the legend of Gary Coop- er. Some are edited versions of his Guardian articles and Letters from America, others were written for this book. There is no deconstructionist malice in these pages and those who prefer to see 20th-century heroes stripped of their reputations will be disappointed.