Alistair Cooke: Ambassador on Air

By Knight, John | Contemporary Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Alistair Cooke: Ambassador on Air


Knight, John, Contemporary Review


EARLY one Saturday morning, many years ago, when I was a young radio producer working at the BBC, I was standing in the entrance hall of Broadcasting House awaiting the arrival of the lift. (Perhaps I should say 'elevator' since the subject of this article has long been fascinated by the 'linguistic particularities' of American English and frequently supplied H. L. Menken with nuggets for inclusion in his great work The American Language.) Usually a busy thoroughfare, at weekends the foyer was deserted but for a commissionaire and a receptionist. As usual, I had entered that world-famous building through one of the heavy metal and glass doors above which stands Eric Gill's controversial statue of Prospero and Ariel, at one time the butt of many a lewd joke and which, back in the 1930s, had prompted a question in the House of Commons. A Labour MP, Mr G. G. Mitcheson, arguing that the figures were offensive to public morals and decency, asked the Home Secretary if he would instruct the Metropolitan Police to re move them. The problem, it seems, was the size of Ariel's private parts and there is a story that the Governors -- that worthy body which actually controls the BBC -- were asked to clamber onto the scaffolding, inspect that particular aspect of the sprite's anatomy and take appropriate action. One of their number, Dr Montague Rendell, a former Headmaster of Winchester and 'the ultimate authority in matters of decoration at Broadcasting House', pronounced against the statue and he it was who commanded Gill to make the necessary adjustments. It was Montague Rendell who composed the building's Latin dedication and Eric Gill who carved it on a beam above the lifts. Ethel Snowden, another Governor, whose husband had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ramsey MacDonald's first Cabinet, had been overruled when she opposed the use of Latin in preference to English and the coupling of Sir John Reith's name with that of the Almighty.

The whirring of machinery announcing the imminent arrival of the lift, which would carry me up to my office on the sixth floor, interrupted my reverie on the god-like qualities of the BBC's first Director-General and Eric Gill's interpretation of Shakespeare's characters. When the lift came to rest and the door opened I found myself face-to-face with its solitary occupant of whom Reith had been 'a devout fan'. Tall, grey-haired, immaculately dressed, there was no mistaking this nonpareil of broadcasters whose voice has graced the air-waves for almost as long as Prospero and Ariel have guarded the portals of Broadcasting House and to whose weekly Letter from America I had been listening since childhood.

I wanted to introduce myself, tell him of my admiration. Instead, tongue-tied, I stood back, allowing him to pass. He smiled, bid me 'Good morning' and I returned the compliment. Then, we went our separate ways. I've always regretted not having had the courage to speak to Alistair Cooke on that Saturday morning, almost thirty years ago. But, perhaps, it's just as well that I did hold my peace for in Nick Clarke's recently published portrait of the great man (Alistair Cooke, The Biography, issued by Weidenfeld and Nicolson) the author tells how, on one of Cooke's visits to the Huntingdon Hotel in San Francisco (a suite there has been named after him), the new manager greeted the broadcaster as he checked in: 'Good evening, sir. I'm the new manager.' Cooke's response was terse. 'So?' he is alleged to have replied 'as he walked off, leaving a proffered hand dangling in the air.'

I did write to him once, asking if he would contribute to a Radio 4 programme I was preparing with Alan Dell -- another stylish performer at the microphone, sadly, no longer here to delight us -- to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the birth of George Gershwin. In a gracious letter, Cooke declined and that was a pity for it is an understatement to say that his knowledge of American music is encyclopaedic. …

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