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 VIII—and 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.