You could easily assume that Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who has died unexpectedly aged 65, was an old-fashioned throwback to the literate, sarcastic and brilliant songwriting tradition – as a lyricist – of Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Michael Flanders and Tom Lehrer. And you would be right.
He harnessed this gift for putting words to music, over four decades, to some talented contemporary obsessions and composers. His cabaret act with the pianist and composer Richard Sisson, Kit and the Widow, was an acclaimed club, restaurant and touring gig throughout the UK.
He and the “widow”, Sisson, cordially loathed each other, according to their friend and colleague at Cambridge University, the tenor Simon Butteriss, but they produced a body of work that deserves, and will merit, permanent recognition.
When their cabaret Figgy Pudding (1988) surfaced as a Christmas show at the Lyric, Hammersmith (with an unknown Steve Coogan chipping in with impressions), the comedy critic Bruce Dessau confessed his guilty pleasures: cheap chocolate, boybands, voting Labour … and Kit and the Widow.
Their songs, along with those of Fascinating Aïda, take you back to a time of melodic, intelligent and tart, pre-Monty Python, revue. Hesketh-Harvey himself appeared in Cameron Mackintosh’s second Stephen Sondheim cabaret, Putting It Together (1992), at the Old Fire Station in Oxford alongside Diana Rigg and Clarke Peters; in a touring revival of Mackintosh’s Tomfoolery in 2005, celebrating the acerbic genius of Lehrer; and in another revival of the Mermaid’s splendid Coward revue, Cowardy Custard, in 2011.
He was also a distinguished librettist in opera: 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 sensitivities at the ENO. His last operatic work, with the composer Anthony Bolton, was The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko for Grange Park Opera in 2021. Thrilling, but flawed, said one critic.
Kit was born in Zomba, Nyasaland (now Malawi), to Susan (nee Ford) and Noel Harvey, a diplomat with the Foreign Office who, on returning to England, joined the BBC as a manager – a posting that eased his son’s entrance into the world of BBC arts and music in 1980.
He was educated at the cathedral choir school, Canterbury – where he was a senior chorister – and Tonbridge school, Kent, before going to Clare College, Cambridge, where, as a choral scholar under the composer John Rutter, he studied English and joined the Footlights. He graduated in 1978 and toured the UK and the 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 BBC producer, attached to music and arts and an 11-episode theatrical history presented by Ronald Harwood, All the World’s a Stage. His first – and only – screenplay was for the Merchant Ivory film Maurice (1987), which launched Hugh Grant. In 1998, he wrote Writing Orlando with James McConnel (it won the Vivian Ellis award) and went on to collaborate 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 was not always pejorative – but such innovative, argumentative creatures are rare and treasurable.
The “idea” of a critical upper-middle-class artist such as Hesketh-Harvey, at odds with his privileged background, is endemic to our cultural evolution. He was a significant figure even if he did not quite fit in the current era of censoriousness.
That said, his appearance in Ned Sherrin’s revival of Salad Days in 1996 was a disaster. This was in the same theatre, the Vaudeville, as the show had been premiered in, in 1954, but this time round the production got the tone wrong and fell flat on its face. Nevertheless, Hesketh-Harvey remained friends with the author, Julian Slade. Much better was his 1998 Christmas show, Meat on the Bone, also at the Vaudeville, in which he excoriated white vans and the then Labour party minister Peter Mandelson, and introduced Coogan.
For all his palpable talent and wittiness, Hesketh-Harvey never quite broke through, which is regrettable. He became a private jester to the gentry, and indeed royalty – King Charles thought he was hilarious – enlivening birthday parties and anniversaries at, say, Highclere (the setting for Downton Abbey).
He was a fixture as a baddie in pantomimes at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, and a regular on such BBC Radio 4 programmes as Just a Minute and Quote … Unquote. He represented a fading, though still ebullient, literacy, where words and inflections still matter.
In 1990, he signed up to the first Cameron Mackintosh-sponsored professorship at Oxford, conducted by Sondheim, who became a friend and a mentor. Thereafter, he wrote several more smart and piquant shows with Sisson before they went their separate ways in 2011. That year he was part of the first comedy Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, appearing alongside another smart lyricist (and composer), Tim Minchin. This was at the invitation of Roger Wright, then the Proms and BBC Radio 3 director, another mentor.
A duo with his longtime collaborator, Kit & McConnel, continued to perform whenever invited. The Crazy Coqs in the Brasserie Zedel, near Piccadilly Circus, was a favourite venue.
His marriage in 1986 to the actor Katie Rabett ended in divorce in 2021. He is survived by their children, Augusta and Rollo, his sisters Sarah and Joanna, and his mother.