Alistair Cooke, the British-born journalist and commentator, was the voice of the BBC’s “Letter from America” for 58 years.
As the host of "Masterpiece Theatre" from 1971 to 1992, Cooke supplied wry, informative introductions for adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," Jane Austen's "Emma" and Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" as well as the made-for-television series "Upstairs Downstairs." His urbane manner recalled a kindly professor.
Cooke joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic, but European audiences knew him best for his "Letter From America" — weekly commentaries broadcast on BBC radio starting in 1946 and continuing until his final report aired in the months before his death. There were 2,869 talks in all, each a 13-minute, 30-second spot offering Cooke's observations on political and cultural life in the United States. His "letter" aired in 50 countries and gained a broad audience in England.
Cooke once compared his role as host to that of a head waiter whose job was "to explain to interested customers what's on the menu and how the dishes are composed."
He became so popular with American television audiences that he was parodied on programs as diverse as "Saturday Night Live" and "Sesame Street," where he was known as Alistair Cookie on "Monsterpiece Theatre."
A self-made man, Cooke explained his enthusiasm in one of his earliest letters from America.
"I never remember hearing anyone in America, no matter how snobbish, say that somebody didn't know his place," he said. "It is a deep, almost unconscious belief of Americans, that your place is what your talent and luck can make it."
Cooke first attracted a U.S. following as host of "Omnibus," a pioneering commercial television program about the arts and culture. The show aired from 1952 to 1961 — first on CBS and later on ABC. He proved to be a thoughtful observer with a rare appreciation for both British and American culture.