Sir Alistair Cooke: The rich, calm, beguiling and wise voice

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From the London Times (excerpts) – 10/16/2004

The Abbey says a final farewell to the rich, calm, beguiling and wise voice of Alistair Cooke

The American flag was flown from Westminster Abbey for the first time yesterday in honour of Sir Alistair Cooke, who died this year at the age of 95. Inside, the packed congregation of 2,000 heard the unmistakable voice to which they had come to pay homage.

“I am on the whole not sorry not to be with you today,” came the familiar measured tones. “I believe broadcasters should be heard and not seen. And I don’t want to disturb any image you may have of me.” These were words Sir Alistair had recorded to be played on a previous occasion when he was given a broadcasting award in Britain and could not be present.

But the apposite words reminded everyone of the gentle voice whose Letter from America was an integral part of Sunday morning for half a century. Sir Alistair was also a special correspondent of The Times between 1938 and 1940.

The congregation, though dominated by his fans, included Michael Grade, chairman of the BBC governors, Marmaduke Hussey, Sir Peter Jay, former British Ambassador in Washington, Helen Boaden and Liz Forgan, former controllers of Radio 4, Nick Clarke of The World at One (and Cooke’s biographer), Sir David Frost, Michael Portillo, MP, and the actresses Dame Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh.

There were eulogies from Peter Jennings, anchorman of ABC News, and Mark Thompson, the new BBC Director-General, who said: “Institutions have their own DNA, and if you look deep into the genetic code of the BBC, you will find the rich, calm, beguiling, wise voice of Alistair Cooke.”

But the service was essentially a family affair. John Byrne Cooke, his son, read a lesson. His granddaughter Jane, 19, a violinist studying at Mannes College of Music, New York, played the second movement of Bach’s A minor concerto with the BBC concert orchestra. His daughter, the Rev Susan Cooke Kittredge, a Congregational minister in Vermont, led the prayers, and prayed especially for mutual respect and amity between the United Kingdom and the US.

Her father, not a believer, had not at first approved of her becoming a minister of the United Church of Christ: but she felt that he envied her the certainty of her faith, and he regularly mentioned her proudly in his broadcasts.

And another recording of Cooke’s voice was played, ruminating on the Big Bang theory. “Who triggered the Big Bang? Who struck the match? If I were to choose between the Big Bang theory and the words of Genesis – “And God said, let there be light, and there was Light” – I’d plump for Genesis.”

Cue for the Abbey choir’s rousing Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Peter Jennings said in his address that Cooke used to dismiss any idea of a memorial service after his death. But he might have said, “Ah, the Abbey? Well.”

His daughter said afterwards that a few weeks before her father died he had told her that he would, after all, like there to be a concert “at some small church in England” and gave her a list of the music he wanted played: Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me (sung in the Abbey by Jacqui Dankworth, the daughter of John Dankworth and Cleo Laine); In Friendship’s Name from Gilbert and Sullivan; and of course, The Battle Hymn of the Republic which made a fitting finale.

The only thing he wanted which could not be played, she said, was a recording of himself playing Basin Street Blues on the piano.

“But I feel he must be up there, parting the clouds and saying, “That’s OK’.”

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