Abbey service attracts 2,000 Cooke admirers

More than 2,000 friends, relations, colleagues and listeners of the legendary broadcaster and writer Alistair Cooke KBE filled Westminster Abbey on 15 October for a service of thanksgiving for his life and work.

BBC director general Mark Thompson was among those who paid tribute to the man whose voice was known to millions of listeners around the world.

“If you look deep into the genetic code of the BBC, not just today but for as long as the BBC exists, one of the things you would find at its heart would be the rich, calm, beguiling, wise voice of Alistair Cooke,” he said.

Among those who attended were 150 listeners of the World Service chosen as representatives of Cooke’s worldwide audience of 22 million.

Along with BBC chairman Michael Grade, Sir David Frost and former BBC chairman Sir Marmaduke Hussey, they listened to the voice of Cooke in a recording he made for a 90th birthday celebration he was unable to attend.

“I am sure you expect me to say I am sorry not to be with you. Well, I am not sorry,” he said. “I am of the opinion that a radio broadcaster should be heard and not seen.”

Cooke, who was born in Salford in 1908, moved to the US in 1937 and was granted citizenship in 1941. His 15-minute dispatches were meant to run for just 13 weeks, but Letter From America was to run for 58 years.

Peter Jennings, anchor and senior editor of ABC News, said of Cooke, who died aged 95: “Alistair had a passion and a hunger to know and understand and enjoy his adopted country. He really captured America and the essence of its being. Alistair helped us to understand ourselves.”

Shortly before he died, Cooke, a music lover whose passion was jazz, had compiled a list of his favourite pieces to be played at the service.

Cooke’s granddaughter, violinist Jane Byrne Kittredge, was among those who performed. Other pieces included Overture and other movements from Handel’s Messiah , Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks , Gilbert and Sullivan’s Waltzing with Sullivan , a special arrangement by Bobby Field of In Friendship’s Name from Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan, and Gershwin’s Someone To Watch Over Me .

By Caitlin Pike

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