Alistair Cooke recordings fill gap in archive

Roy Whittaker and David Henderson Roy and David stand next to the room named after Alistair Cooke in NBH

David Henderson and Roy Whittaker could never have imagined that their recordings of Alistair Cooke would one day bring them to the BBC in London.

Between them, the two men recorded 620 lost episodes of Letter From America, Cooke's radio programme that lasted an astonishing 58 years and included his thoughts on seminal moments in American history.

It's a valuable find for the BBC archive and a valuable contribution to posterity.

Start Quote

Once you got used to listening to Cooke, it was kind of a normal thing. It was therapeutic, really”

End Quote David Henderson

Listening to the programme was 'like an education', says David, who left school in 1964 at the age of 16.

The former Wiltshire dairy farmer is sitting at a table in New Broadcasting House, only a short distance from Alistair Cooke's typewriter, the very one he used to type the drafts of his 'letters'.

Outside the window you can see the entrance to the BBC's headquarters as it slopes away towards Langham Place. A knot of tourists are staring at the building.

'I was very interested in the United States, particularly the space programme,' continues David. 'Once you got used to listening to [Cooke], it was kind of a normal thing. It was therapeutic, really.'

The 65-year-old recorded programmes from the 1970s at a time when only one to five per year would be kept by the BBC.

It was the policy at the time to keep recordings of certain programmes for a short period of time and then discard all but the significant ones.

'Artillery barrage'

After an appeal from the BBC for people to search their collections, David and Roy came forward with a stash that was beyond what anyone at the Corporation could have hoped for. It provided a complete record of the programme through the 1970s and 80s.

Although Radio 4 archivists are yet to go through the entire haul, one recording has already been deemed to be historically important - a Letter from America from the day after Richard Nixon resigned as president of the United States.

Roy, who comes from Newquay, is 90 but has an astounding memory for small details. He recalls Cooke's inimitable powers of description.

In one programme, says Roy, the broadcaster compared the swirling of cigar smoke to 'artillery barrage'. It wasn't just anyone's cigar smoke, either, but that of Groucho Marx.

'At that moment I didn't need a TV screen to see what was going on. I could see it. It was so precise and so descriptive.'

'Great delight'

Like his enthusiast friend, Roy left school early, at the age of 14 in 1937. 'It was only an elementary school education that finished me off,' he laughs.

He discovered Cooke much later and was impressed with his 'command of the English language'.

He hopes to listen to the recordings again, if only he can find the time.

'I planned to listen to these in my dotage when I could do nothing more than listen and watch. Well, I've reached that stage and got a little bit beyond it but I still haven't been able to sit down and listen to the broadcasts.

'Provided I don't kick the bucket too quickly, I'll get through some of them - and it will give me great delight.'

Both men also received a personal letter of thanks from Cooke's daughter in the United States.

Their thanks from the BBC included a short 'thank you' note, typed on the battered old Royal that belonged to the writer and broadcaster and was donated to the BBC in 2005.

  • Over 900 of Alistair Cooke's weekly broadcasts are free to listen to on the Letter from America website

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