How the Host of Masterpiece Theater Changed Radio
Alistair Cooke's Letter from America was one of the longest running radio shows in history.
Alistair Cooke was a legendary British American journalist, television personality, radio broadcaster, and, to many Americans, the iconic host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.
Originally from Lancashire, England, Cooke was educated at the University of Cambridge. He then attended Harvard and Yale on a Commonwealth fund fellowship and returned to London serving as NBC’s London correspondent. While at NBC, he recorded a weekly 15-minute radio talk for American listeners about life in Britain called London Letter.
In 1946, five years after moving to the U.S. and becoming a citizen, the first American Letter was broadcast for the BBC, the reverse of his original NBC radio show. Eventually, the series became Letter from America and ran for 58 years, one of the longest running radio programs in history. (Read highlights from the first five years of the program in his book Letters from America: 1946–1951.)
Much of the 20th century was chronicled through Cooke’s off-the-cuff radio broadcasts, which covered everything from politics to Hollywood to golf. With the elegance of a master storyteller and the insight of a keen journalist, Cooke’s voice became a fixture in many British and American households. Through his witty observations of American life, he fostered an amicable relationship between England and America and in 1973 was awarded an honorary knighthood for his “outstanding contribution to Anglo-American mutual understanding.”
Cooke’s love (and sometimes humorous confusion) for his adopted country were the perfect “fireside chats” for his many listeners. You can still listen to episodes of Letter from America on BBC’s website – or you can read through highlights from the program in Cooke’s books, like The Americans: Letters from America 1969–1979, America Observed, The Patient Has the Floor, and more.
Keep reading for some of our favorite quotable Cooke lines below.
“As always, the British especially shudder at the latest American vulgarity, and then they embrace it with enthusiasm two years later.”
“People, when they first come to America, whether as travelers or settlers, become aware of a new and agreeable feeling: that the whole country is their oyster.”
“People in America, when listening to radio, like to lean forward. People in Britain like to lean back.”
“Hollywood grew to be the most flourishing factory of popular mythology since the Greeks.”
“New York is the biggest collection of villages in the world.”
“In America the race is on between its decadence and its vitality, and it has plenty of both.”
“Every man’s harmless fantasy mistress. [Greta Garbo] gave you the impression that, if your imagination had to sin, it could at least congratulate itself on its impeccable taste.”
“Texas does not, like any other region, simply have indigenous dishes. It proclaims them. It congratulates you, on your arrival, at having escaped from the slop pails of the other 49 states.”
“All Presidents start out to run a crusade, but after a couple of years they find they are running something less heroic and much more intractable: namely the presidency. The people are well cured by then of election fever, during which they think they are choosing Moses. In the third year, they look on the man as a sinner and a bumble and begin to poke around for rumors of another Messiah.”
“It has been an unchallengeable American doctrine that cranberry sauce, a pink goo with overtones of sugared tomatoes, is a delectable necessity of the Thanksgiving board and that turkey is uneatable without it.”
“Las Vegas is Everyman’s cut-rate Babylon. Not far away there is, or was, a roadside lunch counter and over it a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’”