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Superb Series on American History
LindaY1 June 2009
I was in my junior year of high school when this was first broadcast by NBC (1972-1973). I was enthralled by Cooke's skill in imparting history without being dull or pedantic. Especially noted: the episode "Gone West," which brought home the sufferings of the pioneers who crossed the country via "shanks mare," horseback, and wagon, and "The First Impact" (which was the original first episode in the UK, but was broadcast twelfth in the US, with different opening narration), Cooke's portrait of the things that drew him to the US, including New Orleans jazz, the city of San Francisco, and fall color in Vermont. The only episode that fell a little flat even back then, and is very dated now, was the final part, in which Cooke examined "modern" society. It would have been better had he followed up on some critical issues of the 1950s and 1960s--the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the growing feminist movement--to bring it up to the present day. Otherwise the series still holds up, and should be released on DVD here in the States. I made do of copies of library VHS tapes for years and then bought the Region 2 version when it came out.
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Cooke up some Burns, instead
frankiehudson4 March 2005
This is a thirteen hour epic, told by one of the great broadcasters of the twentieth century, Alistair Cooke. He was from Manchester, England, but went to America as a foreign correspondent just before the Great Depression and remained there ever after. His knowledge of America is vast.

In England, we know him from his long-running (about fifty years) radio programme, Letters from America, a little fifteen minute gem, once a week on BBC radio. In that programme he spoke about various matters in America, all in an off-the-cuff technique; it was like a 'fireside chat'. He had a unique, lovely voice, ideally suited for radio; his appearance on television is just as benign.

Here, it has been transferred to television, with a series of one hour programmes covering the main features of American history. You'll learn about the Pilgrim Fathers, independence and the Philadelphia Convention, the Civil War, various other wars, the political system and so forth. It is a fascinating, relaxing programme, all accompanied by some fine background music.

However, this series was made in 1972 and the DVD transfer seems to have had no re-mastering at all. It is scratchy and faded - dated.

Alistair Cooke does preface this series with the line 'A Personal History' and in many ways it is so - he often brings in little anecdotes along the way, describing the places he's seen and the people he's met.

It's all very interesting but, in my view, it has a long way to go to reach the heights of a Ken Burns masterpiece, such as his The West or The Civil War. Ken Burns' epic documentaries are on a different level altogether; they combine greater research and documentary pictures and interviews, with better, more haunting music. I would recommend The West.

Of course, Alistair Cooke made his series twenty years before Ken Burns, and was a pioneer in his own way; perhaps he inspired Burns.
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