Alistair Cooke: Long-lost letters from 1970s America

Muhammad Ali on the BBC's Michael Parkinson show in October 1971

In the 1970s, Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most famous person in the world. Now a rare recording about the night he took US TV by storm has been found on a farm in Warwickshire.

"It's all due to a visit by the Environment Agency," says David Henderson. "We had a letter saying they were going to inspect the farm and my wife said, 'You've got to tidy up.'

"And one of the things that was in the barn was a fertiliser spreader, which was a big old thing, full of boxes. Lo and behold in the middle was a box of Alistair Cooke eight-track tapes."

The cassettes are the size of a chunky cheese sandwich and were popular in the 60s and 70s - especially in cars.

From 1975 to 1980, David faithfully recorded every edition of Alistair Cooke's Letter from America. A weekly guide to life in the US, it ran for 58 years until 2004 when Cooke died. It was the longest-running programme of its kind in the world.

Ten years since Cooke's death, David, who's now 66, has been sending all his recordings to the BBC. Thanks to another listener from Cornwall he never met, Roy Whittaker, they've found more than 600 lost programmes between them.

"It's a treasure trove of the 1970s," said BBC producer Zillah Watson. "The recordings weren't kept by the BBC and David and Roy have plugged the gaps. We've had to use cunning and technology to hear them again."

BBC engineers borrowed David's recording machine and used a mixture of digital devices and draught-proofing tape to jolt the programmes back to life - offering the rest of us the chance to hear them for the first time since the 70s.

David Henderson David Henderson with his tapes

Cooke offers his unique view of America's hopes and fears in a turbulent decade from the resignation of President Richard Nixon, to the eventual end of the Vietnam War.

But the Letters also show how America saw big social change too. Cooke loved to find a moment which seemed to bring all of this into focus. One of these came on prime time TV in 1978 when Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his powers.

Here's how Cooke began for his listeners back home: "Let's turn to... the only sort of conflict which gets settled once for all - a heavyweight boxing championship. And the kind of conflict which never gets settled at all - that's between the white man's world and the rest."

In the UK, TV viewers had seen Ali's onscreen sparring with Michael Parkinson but one night in the US, the boxer appeared on the Dick Cavett Show on public television. Cavett was around 5' (1.5m) tall, and a sassy graduate of Yale University.

Muhammad Ali (left) with BBC talk show host Michael Parkinson in December 1974   Muhammad Ali posing with BBC talk show host Michael Parkinson in December 1974

It began well enough, pondering why boxers keep putting themselves through hell. But when the question of race came up, the tone changed. Cooke continued: "'I just wondered,' Cavett mused. 'I was just wondering... how it felt to have one grandparent who was pure white.'"

Cooke described what happened next, with millions watching: "Ali leapt to that like a trout to a fly. His brown eyes goggled with amazement and amusement. 'Pure white,' he said. 'Did you get that? The man said pure white.'

"And it was too late for Cavett to say he was sorry, he meant just white. Ali can rattle off all the English idioms which use 'white' meaning 'honest and good' and 'black' meaning 'dark and evil'. He loved the discomfiture of Cavett and so, to his credit, did Cavett.

"Cavett said he was sure it was one of his best programmes.

Alistair Cooke in 1969 Alistair Cooke had the longest-running speech radio slot in the world

"'The best,' Ali threw in. 'You know it. The best you'll ever do, Dick, because you were, for once, up against an intelligence.'"

Among all the newly found recordings from the 70s, Cooke talks of the harsh lessons of the Vietnam War and of a new cynicism felt by US voters for the presidency.

But he misses moments too. Here's how one programme began in 1977: "The one thing there's surely no need to say much about is the death of Elvis Presley."

Cooke then delivered most of the programme on the record to date of President Jimmy Carter.

So back to David Henderson on his farm. Cooke, he says, was at his best on the things he himself seemed to love the best, like golf.

Dick Cavett in East Hampton, New York, August 2007 Dick Cavett hosts replays of his classic TV interviews these days

Here he is in July 1975 predicting great things for Tom Watson, then aged 25: "He walked off... the golf course when a bolt of lightning shot out of the sky.

"He claimed one of the tools of golf which the player himself may act on. 'I invoke the lightning rule,' he said. And he ran for cover before the rather miffed officials agreed with him after a larger and closer bolt.

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"'Why did you do it?' the press asked him in the press tent. 'Because,' young Watson said, 'there will be lots of United States Open Championships, there's only one of me.'"

There was, of course, only one Alistair Cooke. To listen again to all these programmes is to judge for ourselves if the many things said about him by famous people were correct.

But I can't help but feel that David Henderson and Roy Whittaker paid him the best tribute of all: when Cooke spoke, they listened.

Thanks to them, so can we.

Paddy O'Connell presents Broadcasting House on BBC Radio 4 Sundays 0900 and Letter from America: the 1970s at 10.00 30 March 2013 on Radio 4 Extra.

Many of Cooke's original scripts can be found online at Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre.

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