Alistair Cooke's America (1972)

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Released 6-Jan-2005

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Audio
Featurette-Interview With Alistair Cooke On Pebble Mill At One
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1972
Running Time 646:23 (Case: 663)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL
Multi Disc Set (4)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Michael Gill
David Heycock
Tim Slessor
Ann Turner

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Alistair Cooke
Case Gatefold
RPI $89.95 Music William Davies

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.29:1
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.29:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    At the end of March 2004, Alistair Cooke died at the age of 95. Though born in England, he had spent the bulk of his life in America, first travelling to his adopted country in 1932 shortly before the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After two years on a scholarship at Yale and Harvard, he returned to Britain to take up a broadcasting career with the BBC. From 1937 he became a BBC correspondent in America. In 1946 he started a weekly broadcast to Britain called American Letter. Three years later it was renamed Letter From America, and the last episode was broadcast in the month of his death, 58 years later. In that time he had only missed three broadcasts.

    In 1972 he was asked to write and narrate a television series about his new country, of which he became a citizen in 1941. The result was America, a Personal History of the United States by Alistair Cooke. This was an era when British television produced some classic documentary series, like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and The World at War. Perhaps this is the best of them.

    Cooke was a witty, cultured and urbane man who mixed equally as well with the common folk as he did with celebrities. As is revealed in this series, he met jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton and jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and was a friend of the legendary journalist H. L. Mencken. Yet this series is entirely Cooke talking to camera or as off-screen narrator. There are no talking head academics, no historians, and no common folk telling their own stories. Cooke sticks to his own understanding of the history of America, much of which differs from the popular views presented in films and literature. This is a wide-ranging series, beginning with Cooke's personal journey, then following the currents of American history from Columbus to the 1970s. Presidents are only mentioned when they actually had an impact on the course of history, and of those movie stars who would seem to constitute the bulk of the population of the USA if the media is any guide, there is little mention.

    The series inspired a best-selling book, and Cooke was given the opportunity to address Congress in 1974 as part of that institution's bicentennial celebrations. He said to them that the only thing he could think of to say was "I accept the nomination for President of the United States". This tongue-in-cheek humour is much in evidence during this series, telegraphed by Cooke's twinkling eye. This series is still fresh today, dated only by the hairstyles and clothes of the natives (Cooke is almost always dressed immaculately in coat and tie) and some of Cooke's observations about the immediate future of America. Very entertaining and highly recommended. The thirteen episodes are as follows:

The First Impact (49:54)

    This episode covers the entire country, from Yale to New Orleans to the west coast, as Cooke recounts his first journey there. There's a stop-off at the Mayo Clinic on the way.

The New Found Land (49:20)

    Columbus discovers the West Indies, and the Spanish move up into California in search of the seven cities of gold. The French move south from Canada.

Home From Home (49:11)

    English settlers make their way to Virginia, but their enterprises continue to be run from London. Representative government is born. Another group, this time of Puritans, miss their intended target by hundreds of miles.

Making a Revolution (49:39)

    The imposition of taxes, to pay for a protective force for the colonies, is rejected by the colonists themselves. This sows the seeds of revolution, which begins badly for the locals. But they had not counted on a patrician and stubborn farmer named George Washington.

Inventing a Nation (49:29)

    Once the British have been sent packing, the colonists must decide how to govern their new country. Not satisfied with historical models, they invent their own, not without conflict.

Gone West (49:26)

    Settlers begin to push west into the unknown territories. This episode discusses the need for salt, the forcible removal of the Indian tribes and the trek across the country to the goldfields.

A Firebell in the Night (49:31)

    Cooke traces the roots of the Civil War in the cotton gin and the need for cheap labour. The war leaves a lasting bitterness in the South.

Domesticating a Wilderness (49:24)

    This episode tells of the settling of the west with boom towns born from gold and silver mining, the railroad bringing goods and people more quickly to the interior and the rise of the cowboy. The Indians object.

Money on the Land (49:51)

    Chicago becomes the world's biggest grain market. The need for new technology spurs inventors such as Thomas Edison. Steel, railroads and speculation bring great wealth to a few men, like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan.

The Huddled Masses (49:01)

    Cooke looks at the sharp increase in immigration in the late 19th century, as people fled persecution, famine and conflicts in Europe to try to forge a new life in the land paved with gold. A new class of poor factory workers is created, causing new tensions.

The Promise Fulfilled and the Promise Broken (49:36)

    The boom times of the 1920s lead to much wealth on paper, corruption (Harding) and blithe indifference (Coolidge) in government, and a frivolity that would come crashing to earth with the depression.

The Arsenal (49:19)

    The history of the American armed forces in a nutshell. The response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from American industry and the Manhattan Project are discussed. Cooke also has a look at the formation of the United Nations.

The More Abundant Life (52:42)

    This last episode looks at current trends in American society, from the move to the suburbs to those who went back to nature in search of the simple life. Cooke also looks at race relations. Some of this has not turned out the way he envisaged, as he admits in a prologue to this episode which must have been recorded sometime during the Reagan era.

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Transfer Quality


    The programmes are all transferred in the original aspect ratio of 1.29:1.

    The video quality could best be described as variable. The very first image you see in episode one is very grainy indeed, but often the image is very sharp and clean. I think that because the original material comes from a variety of sources it varies in quality accordingly. Most of the outdoor footage, particularly that shot in low light levels, is grainy to varying degrees. The footage shot indoors or in bright sunlight is much better. Contrast is generally okay, though shadow detail is occasionally non-existent.

    Colour is generally very good. Skies are nicely blue, flesh tones look realistic, and bright colours tend to be vivid without any noticeable problems. Blacks are sometimes less than solid, with a little low level noise present.

    Apart from the graininess, there is some mild aliasing at infrequent intervals. However, the main artefact is Gibb effect, which is present in most shots. Film artefacts are relatively few, even in the archival footage. There is occasionally some fluff in the gate or a piece of dirt, but the original material looks to have been in good condition otherwise.

    Optional English subtitles are provided in the small white font typical of BBC releases. They match the dialogue well from the sample I made of them.

    All four discs are dual-layered. Disc one has four episodes, each of which is wholly contained on one of the two layers, so there is no layer change to contend with. The remaining discs are RSDL-formatted. Disc two has the layer change at 26:41 in episode 6. Disc three has the layer change at 24:50 in episode 9. Disc four has the layer change placed at 26:29 in episode 12. None of the layer changes are disruptive. In fact, the only one I noticed while watching the series was the last of these.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The sole audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.

    The audio is surprisingly good for television material of this vintage, probably due to being shot entirely on film. The dialogue is very clear, benefiting of course from Cooke's impeccable diction. Lip sync is perfect, though there is a piece of looped dialogue at 17:36 in episode 11 where Cooke has obviously got his figures wrong.

    The music score has been compiled from other sources, which are mostly classical in nature, from Bach to Copland. There is some gospel music, Hawaiian music, patriotic music and folk songs. Cooke even tries his hand at some jazz on the piano in episode 1. The music is very well chosen, never intrusive and always in keeping with the subject matter. It also sounds very good in this transfer even if it is mono.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


Pebble Mill at One (12:34)

    This is a short interview with Cooke made sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, to judge from the clothing the interviewer wears. Pebble Mill at One was a daily BBC magazine show which ran from 1975 to 1986. Cooke talks about how his broadcasting career came about and how he thinks we will have destroyed ourselves by 2010 or so. This extra appears on disc four.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    As far as I can tell, this series is only available in Region 4 and UK Region 2 at the moment. The UK edition appears to be identical to the Region 4.


    A fascinating and informative series, which is also very entertaining.

    The video has its problems but is acceptable most of the time.

    The audio is very good considering.

    The sole extra is interesting, but does not amount to much. Perhaps the text of some of the Letters from America would have been a nice bonus.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

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