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.

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

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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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