Photograph: Ian Cook/Getty Images
One could easily assume that Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who died unexpectedly at age 65, was an old-fashioned throwback to the literary, sarcastic and brilliant tradition of songwriting, as lyricist, for Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Michael Flanders and Tom Lehrer. And you would be well.
He harnessed this gift to put words to music, for over four decades, for some talented contemporary composers and obsessions. His cabaret act with pianist and composer Richard Sisson, Kit and the Widow, was an acclaimed club, restaurant and tour across the UK.
He and the “widow,” Sisson, cordially hated each other, according to their friend and Cambridge University colleague, tenor Simon Butteriss, but they produced a work that deserves and will deserve enduring recognition.
When his cabaret Figgy Pudding (1988) appeared as a Christmas show at the Lyric, Hammersmith (with an unknown Steve Coogan contributing impressions), comedy critic Bruce Dessau confessed to his guilty pleasures: cheap chocolate, boybands, voting Labour. .and Kit.and the Widow.
His songs, along with those of Fascinating Aïda, take you back to a time of a melodic, intelligent and sour revue, pre-Monty Python. Hesketh-Harvey himself appeared in Cameron Mackintosh’s second Stephen Sondheim cabaret, Putting It Together (1992), at Oxford’s Old Fire Station alongside Diana Rigg and Clarke Peters; in a traveling revival of Mackintosh’s Tomfoolery in 2005, celebrating Lehrer’s trenchant genius; and in another revival of Mermaid’s splendid Coward revue, Cowardy Custard, in 2011.
He was also a distinguished opera librettist: BBC Radio 3’s Petroc Trelawny approved of his light touch in comic opera translation and the skill with which he could reinvent European operatic plots (Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, Offenbach’s La Belle Hélḕne). for English sensibilities in the ENO. His last operatic work, with composer Anthony Bolton, was The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko for Grange Park Opera in 2021. Exciting, but flawed, said one critic.
Kit was born in Zomba, Nyasaland (now Malawi), the son of Susan (née Ford) and Noel Harvey, a Foreign Office diplomat who, on returning to England, joined the BBC as a manager, a post that made it easy for his son on the BBC World of Arts and Music in 1980.
He was educated at Cathedral Choir School, Canterbury, where he was a senior chorister, and at Tonbridge School, Kent, before going to Clare College, Cambridge, where, as a choral scholar with composer John Rutter, he studied English and joined the Candilejas. He graduated in 1978 and toured the UK and US in a student production of The Comedy of Errors, alongside his future agent, Peter Bennett-Jones.
From 1980 to 1985, Hesketh-Harvey was a producer for the BBC, linked to music and the arts and an 11-episode stage story presented by Ronald Harwood, All the World’s a Stage. His first and only screenplay was for the Merchant Ivory film Maurice (1987), which cast Hugh Grant. In 1998, she wrote Writing Orlando with James McConnel (it won the Vivian Ellis Award) and later collaborated with him on a Dame Edna Everage show at the Haymarket, directed by Alan Strachan.
It may be true that Hesketh-Harvey was the ultimate dilettante, when that word wasn’t always pejorative, but these innovative and argumentative creatures are rare and valuable.
The “idea” of an upper-middle-class critical artist like Hesketh-Harvey, at odds with his privileged environment, is endemic to our cultural evolution. He was a significant figure, even if he didn’t quite fit into the current era of censorship.
That said, his appearance in the 1996 revival of Ned Sherrin’s Salad Days was a disaster. This was at the same theater, the Vaudeville, where the show had opened, in 1954, but this time the production hit the wrong key and fell flat on its face. However, Hesketh-Harvey remained friends with the author, Julian Slade. Far better was his 1998 Christmas show, Meat on the Bone, also at Vaudeville, in which he criticized white vans and then Labor Party minister Peter Mandelson and introduced Coogan.
For all her palpable talent and wit, Hesketh-Harvey never really broke through, which is unfortunate. He became a private jester to the nobility, and indeed royalty (King Charles thought he was hilarious), hosting birthday parties and anniversaries at, say, Highclere (the setting for Downton Abbey).
He has performed as a bad guy in pantomimes on Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, and on BBC Radio 4 shows like Just a Minute and Quote…Unquote. He represented a fading, though still lush, literacy, where words and inflections still matter.
In 1990, he enrolled in the first Cameron Mackintosh-sponsored professorship at Oxford, headed by Sondheim, who became a friend and mentor. Thereafter, he wrote several more clever and racy shows with Sisson before they split in 2011. That year he was part of the first Comedy Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, appearing alongside another clever lyricist (and composer), Tim Minchin. . This was at the invitation of Roger Wright, then director of the Proms and BBC Radio 3, another mentor.
A duo with long-time collaborator Kit & McConnel, he continued to perform whenever invited. Crazy Coqs in Brasserie Zedel, near Piccadilly Circus, was a favorite.
His 1986 marriage to actress Katie Rabett ended in divorce in 2021. He is survived by his children Augusta and Rollo, his sisters Sarah and Joanna, and his mother.
• Kit (Christopher) John Hesketh-Harvey, writer, broadcaster, and cabaret artist, born April 30, 1957; died on February 1, 2023