Kit Hesketh-Harvey

30 April 1957  – 1 February 2023

Wasfi has known Kit for many years and the most recent project with Grange Park Opera was as librettist for Anthony Bolton’s opera The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko. The project began in 2016 and the opera was staged in 2021.

Daily Telegraph Obituary

KIT HESKETH-HARVEY, who has died suddenly aged 65, was a polymathic writer, broadcaster, translator and cabaret performer; sharp of tongue and blessed with an ear for the absurd, he was the urbane and more talkative half of the cabaret-style duo Kit and the Widow, combining the confidence of an aristocrat with the famboyance of an entertainer.

The enormously popular Kit and the Widow, thrice nominated for an Olivier Award, was an act in the manner of Tom Lehrer or Flanders and Swann, with Hesketh-Harvey performing in white tie and tails while delivering parodies, lyrics and sketches as his arms whirled like a conductor on acid.

He had met the Widow (Richard Sisson) at Cambridge University, drily informing audiences that they formed their act “during the last war – the Falklands”. Stephen Fry gave them their first engagement and almost a decade later Kit and the Widow were in the West End with a three-week season at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Their camp and entertaining show invariably worked in a good proportion of topical items, poking fun at institutions and individuals of the day. Reviewing it for the Evening Standard in 1991, Milton Shulman enjoyed their take on the prime minister’s wife Norma Major arriving at the opera as a mousy creature and being transformed into a Brünhilde in full flood or a tantalising, seductive Carmen; their impression of Margaret Thatcher bellowing: “This was my war!”; and the duo’s conducted tour of Ivana Trump’s many facelifts.

Hesketh-Harvey found their audiences to be no less eclectic than the events they were satirising, recalling how on one occasion “during the first Gulf unpleasantness … we played to men who hadn’t seen a woman for a year.” He also told of a performance “where the leg of a piano fell off mid-performance and things got a bit violent”.

Elsewhere, he starred in Ned Sherrin’s revival of Julian Slade’s nostalgia-ridden hark back to the 1950s, Salad Days; Tom Foolery, a show based on Tom Lehrer’s songs; and Cowardy Custard (2011) with Dillie Keane, which he described as “all Noël Coward and extremely chic, which is why we’re taking it on a Waitrose tour: nice towns with nice shopping”.

He also devised and appeared in the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting it Together and was seen with Tim Minchin in the first Comedy Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011. That was one of the last times Kit and the Widow appeared together on stage. He later re-emerged with the pianist James McConnel as Kit and McConnel, though the schtick remained largely unchanged. Off stage, Hesketh-Harvey’s writing, packed with wit and wisdom, suggests a renaissance man, ranging from a tongue-in-cheek “agony uncle” column in Country Life magazine to the libretto for Anthony Bolton’s opera The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko (2021) for Grange Park Opera.

He wrote emotional screenplays for Merchant-Ivory films, translated Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène for English National Opera and penned scripts for the popular BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley and the Rowan Atkinson film Full Throttle (1995), about a gentleman racing driver of the 1930s.

He was also a lively singer, a witty radio panellist on Radio 4 shows including Just a Minute and Quote Unquote, and a thoughtful playwright. For many years he enjoyed appearing in pantomime, usually playing the baddie such as King Rat in a recent Dick Whittington at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, where he had been taken as a child by his grandmother.

Hesketh-Harvey regarded panto as an important part of a child’s cultural development. “It’s the child’s first experience of the theatre, generally,” he told the Break Out Culture podcast.

And it’s the first time you can grab a child by the metaphorical collar and say, ‘Look, this isn’t a video game. This isn’t a film. This isn’t telly. This is something much more exciting called theatre.’

Christopher John Hesketh-Harvey was born in Zomba in Nyasaland (now Malawi) on April 30 1957, the son of Noel Harvey, who was district commissioner and helped to oversee the 1964 transfer from British rule to independence, and his wife Susan (née Ford); one of his sisters is Sarah Sands, a former editor of The Sunday Telegraph, the Evening Standard and the Today programme on Radio 4, while his paternal grandmother was an opera singer.

He was sent to England to be a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral Choir School, describing the experience as “the most brilliant musical training you could possibly have” – even though it was a bizarre upbringing.

Instead of football we ran races around cloisters where [Thomas] Becket’s assassins once ran; we played hide and seek amid the tombs of kings; and our rite of passage was to piddle off Bell Harry, the 365 ft tower of the cathedral,” he wrote. When his voice broke he moved on to Tonbridge School before reading English Literature at Clare College, Cambridge, “but really spent my time doing Gilbert and Sullivan, whom I adore”.

He was also a choral scholar under John Rutter and a member of the Footlights with Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. “We seemed to spend most of our time in frocks, having the most fantastic time,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2018.

After Cambridge, he spent six years producing arts documentaries for BBC Television. He left the corporation to write the screenplays for the Oscar- nominated Maurice (1987), a film depicting homosexual love in a climate of obscene repression based on the E M Forster novel and featuring Hugh Grant in one of his first screen roles. Under the tutelage of Stephen Sondheim, who was on a visiting professorship at Oxford University, he teamed up with James McConnel to write his first musical, Orlando (1988), based on Virginia Woolf ’s 1928 novel. Three years later he wrote the book and lyrics for Yusupov, a musical based around the Russian Revolution and Rasputin, and in 1992 revamped the lyrics for Which Witch, a Norwegian “operamusical” at the Piccadilly Theatre, London.

Two years ago Hesketh-Harvey was the star turn at the prime minister’s Chequers centenary dinner, delivering a politically incorrect ditty to celebrate Viscount Lee’s donation of the estate to David Lloyd George as an unpolluted haven away from London. “Lloyd George was none too wealthy / And Welsh; therefore unhealthy,” he recited.

He was no less flamboyant in private. The Countess of Carnarvon, a friend of many years, recalled that when at Highclere he parked “Le Van Blanc” (the white van) outside the main door to the castle, while floating down to breakfast in various silk dressing gowns. He enjoyed listening to Gregorian chant, but detested golf, adding: “The only good thing to be said about it is that it keeps all the most depressing people in the kingdom in the same place at one time.

In 1986 Hesketh-Harvey married the actress Kate Rabett, an original member of the Hot Gossip dance troupe and former girlfriend of the Duke of York whom he had met in pantomime at Brighton. “It was love across the footlights,” he quipped.

They lived between Norfolk, where he used a former church as his office, and a beachfront home near Padstow in Cornwall. The marriage was recently dissolved and he is survived by a son and a daughter.

Kit Hesketh-Harvey, born April 30 1957, died February 1 2023