Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Alistair Cooke of Masterpiece Theater Dies At 95

Some of my earliest and most poignant memories of childhood in the 1970s as an emigre involve the UN School where, I think, I get my sense of internationalism, as well as PBS' Masterpiece Theater, where I came away with the feeling that dramatic tragedy is of great human dignity. To this day I prefer drama to comedy. And don't ask me where I got my love of gossip.

The AP sadly reports today:

"Alistair Cooke, the broadcaster who epitomized highbrow television as host of 'Masterpiece Theatre' and whose 'Letter from America' was a radio fixture in Britain for 58 years, has died, the British Broadcasting Corp. said Tuesday. He was 95.

"Cooke died at his home in New York at midnight, a spokeswoman at the BBC's press office said. No cause of death was given, but Cooke had retired earlier this month because of heart disease."

Alistair Cooke was the ultimate cultural ambassador of British soft power. Joe E. Sheldon -- bless his heart -- mailed me just last week one of the first Masterpiece Theater's, Last of the Mohicans, which I had been complaining about for years about for years. It was absolutely marvelous.

It would be impossible to name my favorites, whether I, Claudius, or First Churchills (fuck, I can hear ringing in the chambers of my mind Purcell's Music for Queen Mary II, the theme of Churchills) or Upstairs Downstairs. Each were introduced by the cultural ambassador with a twinkling eye and a dry comment on the behavior of the characters. "What fools these mortals be," Cooke seemed to be saying, at the beginning and at the end of these high dramas.

I met my first love (okay, first crush, as I was 7) over a discussion in the school yard at the UN School of The Dutchess of Duke Street, back in the late 70s, when Masterpiece Theater was in full power. Sera was a precocious girl, and I hear she's making indie films in Mallorca now (*sighs* at the reddish bronze twilight memory of first love and Masterpiece Theater).
And ever since the mid 70s, Masterpiece Theater has been more or less a source of joy.

Cooke left in 1992, followed by Baker, and soon after The Soprano's took over the 9pm slot in the "must see tv" sweepstakes. I never quite cottoned to Cooke's replacement, Russell Baker. Baker never seemed to love the classics as much as Cooke. In Baker's intro's he seemed more taken with the language and his lofty position than the drama, than the grand statements being made. Baker posed like a curmudgeon while Cooke was the real deal. There was never a host of high drama as equal to the task as Alistair Cooke.

"'He was really one of the greatest broadcasters of all time, and we shall feel his loss very, very keenly indeed,' UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said, summing up the feelings of all in the room.

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