Alistair Cooke’s Historic Letter From America (1946 – 2004) Now Online, Thanks to the BBC

Think of Mas­ter­piece The­ater and you might think of Down­ton Abbey, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or even the Cook­ie Mon­ster. But the man who real­ly made the series famous was broad­cast­er Alis­tair Cooke, the series’ crisp, avun­cu­lar host. Seat­ed in a leather chair, sur­round­ed by bound vol­umes, Cooke intro­duced all of the great British pro­gram­ming brought to the States by WGBH—I, Claudius and Upstairs, Down­stairs and The Six Wives of Hen­ry VIIIand brought a cozy grav­i­tas to Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion.

Cooke died in 2004 and left a lega­cy as a broad­cast essay­ist: Let­ter from Amer­i­ca, a series of 15-minute radio pieces now col­lect­ed into an exten­sive dig­i­tal archive by BBC Radio 4. The essays aired week­ly through­out the world for 58 years, begin­ning in 1946, send­ing Cooke’s slight­ly amused voice over the air­waves. He gave us his ex-pat take on every­thing from Amer­i­can hol­i­days (includ­ing his per­son­al involve­ment in mak­ing George Washington’s birth­day a nation­al hol­i­day), to the ways Amer­i­can Eng­lish varies from British Eng­lish, to major events in Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

Cooke cap­tured America’s grief after John F. Kennedy was assas­si­nat­ed, but his eye­wit­ness account of Bob­by Kennedy’s death would become one of his most pow­er­ful reports. Cooke was in the lob­by of the Ambas­sador Hotel when Kennedy was shot and used scratch paper to scrib­ble down his impres­sions of the chaos.

He was bril­liant at craft­ing char­ac­ter-dri­ven sto­ries about issues. His piece about John Lennon’s death (above) segued neat­ly into an explo­ration of gun vio­lence in Amer­i­ca. He report­ed on the sui­cide of actress Jean Seberg and used the obit­u­ary as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss the excess­es of FBI sur­veil­lance and witch-hunt­ing.

Cooke wasn’t as good a writer as he was a reporter (view his orig­i­nal scripts in the Boston Uni­ver­si­ty archive) and he audi­bly sighs dur­ing some broad­casts, as if he is either tired or bored. But his point of view is price­less: an obser­vant, charm­ing out­sider who fell in love with his adopt­ed coun­try, warts and all.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Mon­ster­piece The­ater Presents Wait­ing for Elmo, Calls BS on Samuel Beck­ett

Watch John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Appear­ances on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 and 72

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Read more of her work at .

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Comments (4)
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  • Ken says:

    Anoth­er Lib­er­al For­eign­er selec­tive­ly lec­tur­ing the US on what the 2nd Amend­ment means. Intel­li­gent but incor­rect argu­ment.

  • Mike says:

    Cooke’s argu­ment is sound. His descrip­tion of the 2nd Amendment–its full word­ing and the con­text with­in which it was written–is accu­rate.

  • Deej says:

    This is very cool. An out­sider observ­ing US his­to­ry as it hap­pens, from the end of WWII into the 21st cen­tu­ry. He cov­ered it all…politics, cur­rent events, Hol­ly­wood, music, trav­el, cul­ture, even sports. I always enjoyed Cooke, and this is an awe­some resource. Thanks for bring­ing it to our atten­tion.

  • Eric says:

    Have just stum­bled on these. I heard many of them, back in the sev­en­ties and eight­ies, because my father was a huge fan.

    But what a time to be lis­ten­ing! We are now at the start of the Carter pres­i­den­cy, forty years ago — and what’s so intrigu­ing are the serendip­i­tous par­al­lels. Mid­dle Amer­i­ca eject­ed an expe­ri­enced, spin-savvy Repub­li­can incum­bent (Nixon), sud­den­ly noto­ri­ous for dirty tricks, from a well estab­lished pres­i­den­cy and replaced him with a polit­i­cal ingenue (Carter) — a “man of the peo­ple” busi­ness­man appar­ent­ly lack­ing in guile and in tune with the ordi­nary peo­ple’s dis­gust at being tak­en for grant­ed and made fools of by career politi­cians and civ­il ser­vants.

    Right now, a polit­i­cal ingenue — a busi­ness­man, huge­ly pop­u­lar with mid­dle Amer­i­ca, who has just defeat­ed one of Amer­i­ca’s most expe­ri­enced White­house insid­ers (Hillary) on the grounds of sup­posed dirty tricks. Like Jim­my Carter back then, Trump is look­ing to over­turn and scale down the hawks’ knee-jerk hos­til­i­ty to the Russ­ian pres­i­den­cy.

    Admit­ted­ly, Trump is a nar­cis­sist with a rel­a­tive­ly ugly per­son­al­i­ty com­pared to that of Carter — but, as forty years ago, polit­i­cal­ly savvy elites around the world have been caught on the hop and don’t real­ly know what to expect of this “loose can­non.” I am fas­ci­nat­ed to hear more as the Carter pres­i­den­cy gets into full swing — and I can’t think of a bet­ter com­men­ta­tor, as his­to­ry unfolds, than Alis­tair Cooke.

    Well done Hen­der­son for pre­serv­ing these — and well done the Beeb for hav­ing the con­fi­dence to rebroad­cast them.

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