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Alistair Cooke, host of "Masterpiece Theatre" since it began 21 years ago, plans to retire at the end of the year, the Public Broadcasting Service series announced.

"I had meant to do this after `Masterpiece Theatre's' 20th anniversary retrospective, but I was persuaded to stay on for another season," Cooke said in his letter to Boston's WGBH-TV, the presenting station."I have been promising my publisher a book for the past two years and I must get to it," Cooke said. "The rest of my declining energies I want to devote to the thing I most love doing: the weekly BBC `Letter from America."'

"Masterpiece Theater" began bringing British TV productions, most of them by the British Broadcasting Corp., to PBS viewers in January 1971. Its most famous series, in the 1973-74 season, was "Upstairs, Downstairs," about a wealthy family and their servants in Edwardian-era London.

Cooke, who turns 84 in November, often referred to his role at "Masterpiece Theatre" as that of headwaiting, "in the sense that I'm there to explain for interested customers what's on the menu, and how the dishes were composed. But I'm not the chef."

Cooke, an American citizen since 1941, first visited the United States in 1932 to study drama at Yale University. He was chief U.S. correspondent for the Manchester Guardian for 24 years and hosted "Omnibus" on TV in the 1950s.

He is the author of several books on America and its history. His weekly BBC Radio "Letter from America," which has run for more than 46 years, is listed in the Guinness Book as the longest-running program in broadcast history.