November 14, 2020

This week in TV Guide: November 11, 1972

What would Alistair Cooke make of America today? Now, we're all friends here, and I know you won't mind me speaking frankly, or hold it against me. 

It was 48 years ago this week that Cooke introduced his landmark, thirteen-episode series America, to viewers. Cooke, the longtime American correspondent for England's Guardian newspaper, had been approached by the BBC and asked to make a television series about this country, the land in which he had lived for over thirty years, and try to, in the words of BBC producer Michael Gill, "distill this whole experience into a series of television programs." After a couple of days of deliberation, Cooke arrived at the format for his series: "to try to tell the history of the United States on television in 13 hours." 

Cooke and his team decided early on that there would be no recreations, no attempts to cast actors in the roles of the Founding Fathers, no experts sharing their interpretations in monologues before the cameras. Only Cooke would face the camera, in what he calls "a one-man tour through the history of the land and the people who made it the United States of America. It took two years and more than 100,000 miles of travel, visiting Americans who were "doing their thing—selling a cow in Illinois, selling bloomers on New York's Lower East Side, rehearsing the War Alert on a submarine, bidding on the floor of the commodity exchange." 

Cooke felt that he was uniquely qualified to take such a look at his adoped country; "I believe that there is a true American heritage which, in dpite of its almost continuous betrayal since the beginning is something most Americans are only vaguely aware of." And indeed it's no surprise that Amercians should be so unfamiliar with their heritage, since history has so often done such a bad job of presenting it. Cooke hoped that America could be, in some small way, a correction to that, a chance to reacquaint them with their own remarkable story. "If I can reawaken Americans to the best of their story, and remind them of the worst, if we succeed in shaking up in your mind the myths and sentimentalities of your high-school textbook, we'll feel it was well worth doing."

Much has changed in the 48 years since America was telecast. For that matter, much has changed in the last 48 months, or the last 48 weeks. George Will once said that Cooke believed it was "the value of the simple virtues and decencies that can make communities flourish and that have made America great and exemplary." Today, communities that once pulled together now view each other with suspicion and distrust; those who dare to voice opinions are censored by those who view those opinions as unacceptable; those who fail to toe the party line regularly lose their jobs for no reason other than that they dare to believe in freedom of expression. The "people," who once made America, have now turned it into a bitter and divided country, prodded by groups preaching anarchy instead of order, division rather than unity, and an open contempt for "deplorables" whom they would seek to strip of their opnions, their rights, their lives. Leaders of business, government and religion work in an unholy alliance, seeking to control rather than serve, and to pay us off with the promises of bread and circuses, while their computers go about gathering information on our habits, our preferences, our movements. Immigrants who once came to this country because of its freedom—its liberalism—see that liberalism being replaced by the very thing they fled: totalitarianism. The America that once proclaimed itself One Nation Under God now worships at the foot of Moloch rather than the foot of the Cross. 

Today we see very little of the best that America has to offer, and far too much of the worst. The American heritage that Cooke admired, exemplified in the Founding Fathers, has been disparaged; their legacy has been slandered, their statues torn down, their names taken off of schools and buildings. Mobs gather in cities around America burning buildings and looting stores, all the while chanting slogans about bringing down the country. The "news" is, so many times, presented by a media more suited to propaganda than fact-finding, led by men who have more in common with Joseph Goebbels than William S. Paley. With few exceptions, educators fill their students with hate instead of learning, and practice intolerance against their own colleagues.

Even the colors of the flag have been distorted into a grotesque image; where red once stood for hardiness and valor, white meant purity and innocence, and blue symbolized vigilance, perseverance and justice, red and blue now stand for two unreconcilable sides openly discussing civil war, and white has become a dirty word. Meanwhile, that same flag is often found burning in the streets. Social media spreads its own unique blend of brutality and depravity, and seeks to shut down anyone who voices a dissenting opinion; we put on masks and lose the face of humanity. Even the results of elections have now fallen under a shadow. It's all the more depressing because I have friends on both sides of the political aisle, and I pride myself on never letting that interfere with friendship, but now I wonder—do I have cause to worry whether they still feel the same way? The United States of America? Not hardly. And our leaders fiddle like so many Neros while Rome—or Minneapolis, or Portland, or Baltimore—burns. 

As you probably know from the many TV Guides I've looked at over the years, I've spent most of my life in the Twin Cities. It's always been my home, even when I lived somewhere else. But it was my childhood neighborhood that burned this spring; the buildings that were scorched were the landmarks of my youth. And now Minneapolis disgusts me; the people who live there feel more like enemies. The city's leadership has not only broken the city, they've broken my heart, and in the end they're driving me out.

What would Alistair Cooke think of America today? How would he feel seeing the county he loved (he became an American citizen in 1941) turned into a tinderbox of hatred and resentment? What would his reaction be to the great American Experiment turned into a banana republic? My hunch is that his heart would be broken, too.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

Cleveland Amory has a big problem with The Little People, NBC's sitcom starring Brian Keith and Shelley Fabares as father-daughter doctors working in Hawaii. It's all those children, the "little people" of the title, who are the doctors' patients. And, good curmudgeon that he is, this thrills Cleve no end. "There are more 'little people' here than in any show since the Children's Crusade," he says. "[T]hey come in all ages, sizes, races, etc.—each of them a little darling, cuter, and more precocious and more all-around obnoxious than the rest. Our theory is they aren't children. They're midgets who are overacting."

As was the case in Keith's previous series, Family Affair, his character, Dr. Sean Jamison, is single and surrounded by children who aren't his, although his nurse, Puni, is played by Keith's real-life wife, Victoria Young. (No Mr. French for the Doc!) The theory, according to Amory, is that this makes him more appealing, and "The Little People will stop at nothing to get appeal. Four thousand kids, Hawaii and an unmarried pediatrician. What more could you ask? —except, maybe, a little less." Not only this, but the plots—well, "the plots are so saccharine, they stick in your throat,"

And yet, Cleve is forced to acknowledge that the show does have its funny moments, such as the one in which Dr. Jamison tries to get parents to stop making up stories about where babies come from. It was going well until the kid who says that babies come from cross-eyed bears. Seems her mother had said that "babies were a cross she had to bear." I'm sure the viewers could identify with that. 

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It's a big week for movies—I mean, a really big week—starting on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies (9:00 p.m. ET) with part one of the TV premiere of Giant, the sprawling 1956 epic with James Dean totally overshadowing both Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, which isn't easy. The movie earned Dean his second posthumous Best Actor nomination; his first was for East of Eden, and the only movie for which he didn't get nominated was Rebel Without a Cause, which is a pretty fair track record, if you ask me. 

Giant concludes on Monday night, which leaves Sunday open for another TV premiere, that of 1969's True Grit (9:00 p.m., ABC), the magnificent Western which earned John Wayne his Best Actor Oscar. Judith Crist limes the supporting performances of Kim Darby and Glen Campbell, but "it's Wayne, eye-patched, wide in the waist and high in the saddle, belching and burping his way to gallant action and shrewd valor, who makes the movie his—by right indeed." Roger Ebert once pointed out that, sentiment aside, John Wayne deserved that Oscar, and if you want to see why, just watch it sometime.

Wednesday night is another premiere, that of Paul Newman's The Left-Handed Gun (11:30 p.m., CBS), which doubles as director Arthur Penn's big-screen debut. In Newman's portrayal of Billy the Kid, Crist sees shadows of his performance as Butch Cassidy a dozen years later. And Thursday night brings the TV debut of 1967's In Cold Blood (9:00 p.m., CBS), the chilling true (more or less) story of the 1959 murder of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, based on the storied best-seller by Truman Capote (and his research assistant, Harper Lee). It's filmed in black-and-white using many of the actual locations, powered by the performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as the killers, and garnered a Best Director nomination for Richard Brooks.

Not everything movie-related is on the networks, though. I'm looking at Saturday's late-night lineup, for instance. At 11:30 p.m., WCBS has Cat Ballou, with Lee Marvin's Oscar-winning performance; KYW  counters with Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, starring Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren; WPVI has the shocker Hush. . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with Bette Davis, Olivia de Haviland and Agnes Moorehead; WABC offers Joe, with Peter Boyle's Oscar-nominated performance as the factory worker who hates hippies and social workers; and WCAU has the Irving Wallace tale The Prize, with Paul Newman and Edward G. Robinson. And that doesn't even include fun films like The Scarlet Claw (Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson), The Bride of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, and Morocco, with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. And this all on Saturday night—there's plenty more the rest of the week. Now, I know that you can dial up all of these movies, and more, through various on-demand services (commercial-free!), but imagine how exciting it must have been to live in a market with a dozen or so stations available, and have these to choose from. And you wonder why I'm always talking about what it was like when local stations ran movies.

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This Friday evening marks the 100th presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, "The Hands of Cormac Joyce," starring Stephen Boyd and Colleen Dewhurst. (8:30 p.m., NBC) The decline of Hall of Fame from one of the prestige programs on television to telemovies barely suitable for Lifetime is one of the great disasters of television's evolution, but that's in the future; right now, Terrence O'Flaherty takes a look at the glorious history of the program, beginning with Amahl and the Night Visitors, the 1951 Christmas Eve opera. And how is it that Hallmark came to sponsor a program that wouldn't air until everyone had already purchased their Christmas cards? By taking the time to thank all those viewers out there who'd sent Hallmark cards.

You can see this attitude expressed in the comments of J.C. Hall, the founder of Hallmark, who says he has "no interest" in ratings. "Just because people watch your show doesn't mean they are buying your product," he declares. "I'd rather make eight million good impressions than 28 million bad ones." And you get those good impressions from presenting quality programs, thanks in large part to director George Schaefer, "a director who respected the playwright, the actors and the audience and realized all three were linked in the success of any drama." From Schaefer's direction came "a succession of dramatic gems" including Hamlet, King Richard II, Macbeth, The Corn is Green, The Taming of the Shrew, Man and Superman, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, That Fantasticks, The Tempest, and Blythe Spirit among them. And then there are the stars: Dame Judith Anderson, Maurice Evans, Katharine Cornell, Sir John Gielgud, Mary Martin, George C. Scott, Julie Harris, Richard Burton, and the husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Talk about a hall of fame of talent.

Four years ago the series began introducing stories from the contemporary scene, without compromising quality. Dramas like Teacher, Teacher (a broken teacher's relationship with a retarded child), A Storm in Summer (the uneasy friendship between a Jewish delicatessen owner and a black youngster), and A Punt, a Pass and a Prayer (an aging athlete coming to terms with the end of his career) have led the series into a new era. For years this will continue, as staged plays yield to filmed classics, but this, too, eventually fades away. Today, the brand exists only on Hallmark's television channel, with movies more appropriate for Bravo, Oprah, Oxygen, and, yes, Lifetime. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I read O'Flaherty's closing words with more than a pang of loss: Hallmark Hall of Fame, he rightly says, has always been "the Rolls-Royce of television entertainment, a handcrafted vehicle of comfort, style and precision. The very best." 

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On a somewhat related note, I mentioned on Wednesday that the BBC, which is funded through the "television license" (£154.50 per household per year), has come under increasing scrutiny over the last few years due to an alleged political bias in its news reporting—with the result that there's now a movement afoot to abolish the license and force the Beeb to become a more "commercial" network. Undoubtedly, this would affect the BBC's commitment to arts programming, just as funding cuts to PBS did in this country. But could things have turned out differently?

In the Doan Report, Richard K. reports that "PBS's days as the fledgling public-TV network may already be numbered." The new president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Henry Loomis, says the whole structure is "under review," including "whether PBS is to survive as the vehicle for national programming." The new CPB board of directors is already centralizing control, even when the Nixon administration has been advocating more "localism." (This is one reason why KTCA, the St. Paul-Minneapolis educational channel, was reluctant to join NET; even today, KTCA is one of the most-watched PBS channels in America.) One of the most controversial aspects of public broadcasting is its perceived liberal content, leading critics to urge the Corporation to "get out of 'news and public affairs' programming." Recently, the White House vetoed (for the second time) an HEW bill containing funding for CPB, which is likely to force the service to curtail prime-time programming.

Throughout PBS's history, it has come under fire for its liberal bias, a criticism with which, by and large, I'm in agreement.* The Nixon and Reagan administrations, in particular,  sought to slash funding; consequently, as the Corporation became ever more dependent on pledges and corporate sponsorship, it became ever more necessary to concentrate on popular, crowd-pleasing shows, which is why Pledge Week now looks like Oldies Night at the casino. Just as network cultural programming was first pushed into the Sunday afternoon ghetto and then off the nets entirely—"Let PBS do it; that's what they're for!"—we now seldom see dance, theater, music, drama, or other types of cultural programming on PBS on any kind of regular basis. (And no, Downton Abbey isn't the kind of "drama" I'm talking about.) Even niche cable networks like A&E, Bravo and Ovation wound up dumping their arts programs in favor of endless reruns of NCIS and Real Housewives of Dhaka, Bangladesh, or something like that. 

*Notwithstanding that in the 1980s I was a proud member of KTCA, to show my support for their broadcasting of Doctor Who. After all, man does not live by politics alone.

It's speculation, of course, but had CPB gotten the network out of "news and public affairs programming" back in 1972, could they have avoided the budget cuts that saw cultural programming gradually disappear from their airwaves? Could it, in fact, have preserved the diversity of programming that was part of educational television's original charge? We'll never know, of course (I've got a book on the shelf that might have some answers, if I ever get the time to read it), but it's a question worth asking.

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Finally, speaking of cultural programming as we've been, Sunday mornings today are pretty much dominated by political chatfests, but it wasn't always that way. CBS's Camera Three (11:00 a.m.) takes a look at "The dark side of life as photographed by Diane Arbus, who died last year. Her subjects include prostitutes, transvestites, the deformed and insane" 

Maybe it is about those people in Washington after all. TV 


  1. Since I don't have this issue, I'll just take off from what you've posted here:

    - Noting that the ad for The Hands Of Cormac Joyce makes no mention of the source: a 1960 novel by Leonard Wibberley, perhaps better known as the author of The Mouse That Roared (maybe the listing mentions this; you might like to check).
    Leonard Wibberley was a fascinating character: born in Ireland, raised in England, came to the USA as a young adult, became a full-time resident of Southern California - and ultimately an American citizen - and all of this before he became an acclaimed author, in many genres.
    Wibberley was an inveterate traveler, all over the world, but with special reference to Ireland (as in Cormac Joyce).
    Among his many books were a series of mysteries about Father Bredder, which were a (very indirect) source for a short-lived TV series called Sarge, of which you may have heard ...
    Leonard Wibberley passed on in 1983, but his line lives on: his son Cormac (in collaboration with his wife Marianne) has written much for movies and TV, including the National Treasure movies.
    As I said, a remarkable man, and a remarkable family; you ought to look into it.

    - You linked to a book about PBS, without identifying it specifically.
    As it happens, I have that book: PBS Behind The Screen, by Laurence Jarvik, published in 1997.
    This book, which is unabashedly written from a politically and socially conservative point of view, maintains that PBS works from a clearly liberal bias.
    On the first page, you can read blurb after blurb from a full-throated right-wing chorus, affirming that message.
    All well and good - it is a free country, after all.
    I also happen to have another book, published in the same year: Made Possible By ..., by James Ledbetter, which espouses the exact opposite message -that PBS is slanted towards the political right.
    Again, free country: you pays your money and you takes your choice.
    Each book makes its case with extensive quotes and documentation; both work from the premise that The Other Side is out to silence them and promote their own agenda.
    So who's right?
    I can't help but recall that poem we all had to read as kids - the one about the Blind Men and the Elephant:
    "... Though each was partly in the Right
    They all were in the Wrong!"

    Or if you like, you don't start with your own answer and work backwards to make everything fit.
    Or, if you want to get philosophical about it:
    None are so sure in argument as those who know but the half; none so hesitant as those who have been told the whole.
    The above quote is from Eusibius, The Phoenician, a novel for young people - written by Leonard Wibberley.
    (See how this all ties together?)

    1. Yes, the listing for Hall of Fame does mention Leonard Wibberley and Mouse. And since a kind benefactor sent me Sarge, I'll be interested in looking at the Father Bredder books as well.

      I agree that for a serious study of PBS, one would need to read both books, if for no other reason than to see the effects of the law of unintended consequences, which seems to make up so much of the network's history.

      And this has to be the comment of the week, for how nicely you tied it all together!

  2. Here's a time bender for thought...would Peter Boyle's "Joe" be a Trump disciple today???? Clearly, a character drawn from real life during the hardhat riots in NYC in May 1970 as a counter protest to the protests after Kent State.

    1. I'd think so; he'd also believe the "politicians" (using that as a perjorative) had abandoned the working man. Today, he'd probably be cast as a worker in the Rust Belt.

  3. More food for thought and debate from an old high school and college debater who came of age (and draft age) from the late 60's and early 70's...Would Alistair Cooke's take on 2020 America be a calm analysis of what was a natural progression of division though national politics?

    For some research, go on com and check old yearbooks from high schools across America from the mid-1960's through the early 1970's as you reference, Mitchell. (I admit, this was my time spanning my high school days into my college years). The high school yearbooks show patriotism, girls wearing POW bracelets, etc. Then look at the college yearbooks from the same time online---filled with protests, organized overthrowing of college administration (i.e. nearby Cornell U in Spring 1969 when the administration building was taken over), etc.

    I always appreciated what Cooke tried to do with his program, but his pulse on America avoided the large veins that ran through youth culture during that critical time. Alistair missed the anti-war and anti-Nixon coverage while focusing on cattle auctions. David Frost showed up a few years later and changed the climate.

    1. That is food for thought; I'd love to be able to spend book-lenth time exploring all of the various ramifications of various things. I completely agree that all cultures and societies go through a process of natural progression, but there is also a future which evolves, not organically, but through direct intervention intended to change the natural progress to something not only unnatural but abnormal. That's where the cultural historian's job begins, and who knows where it ends? If only I had the time!

  4. I agree, Mitchell...another book??? Back in 1976, there was a book called, "What Really Happened to the Class of 1965?" co written by Michael Medved and David Wallechinsky. It's a look back at the high school class of 1965 from Palisades HS in LA and how the individuals evolved (based on a Time magazine article). It's an interesting sociological approach to the rapidly changing times and was made into a TV mini-series in 1977-78 on NBC. May be worth a future article!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!