Wednesday 8 February 2023

Britain says "Farewell" to Kit Hesketh-Harvey, its Master where Words meet Music and joyous Renaissance Man

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Kit, who has died at the age of sixty-five and whose polymathic skills earned him the title of 'Renaissance Man', said in 2020 : "I had a very thorough musical grounding as a pupil in the ways that words enhance music and vice versa. Virtually everything that I've done has been in that nexus. I can't call myself a lyricist really. Librettist ? Possibly. (He wrote the libretto for Anthony Bolton’s opera, 'The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko' for Grange Park Opera the following year). I'm certainly not an actor. I can't do acting without music". "On my passport it would say: 'Writer. Performer', but I would say, if I think I have a niche, it is where words and music meet". Kit summed up his breadth of achievement in his forty year career, which earned him the epithet 'Renaissance Man', in his first YouTube broadcast last year (link)

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In 1975 gained a place at Clare College, Cambridge to study Music and English as an  undergraduate. He then deferred his entry and said he : "Spent a gap year touring the Middle East, working on a kibbutz and riding in North Africa, as well as teaching English and music. That's when I learned to appreciate Islamic culture, which has, of late, been so sadly misrepresented"

When he returned and joined the University he said he  : "Sang under the guidance of the great John Rutter", but also : "Spent far too much time in the 'Footlights' or undergraduate theatres, with many now well-known and distinguished actors there at that time, including Stephen Fry, High Laurie, Emma Thomson and Gryff Rhys Jones". “We seemed to spend most of our time in frocks, having the most fantastic time”.

it graduated from Cambridge in 1979 and then worked for five years as a Staff Producer in the BBC Music and Arts Department. He said : "The playwright Ronald Harwood, a genial man, was my first boss. Later, it was Alan Yentob. It paid badly, so I began singing in the growing cabaret scene in London's Soho". This was in the Raymond Revuebar where, in addition to singing, he was the compere. 
He later reflected :  "I know my voice, since I was a chorister, sounds incredibly prissy". He said he was : "Attracted to bawdiness. In fact that's why I've always been wooed by the coarse side of showbusiness. I was the compere because of my beautiful  beautiful accent;  there were strippers; there was a girl who could hang coat hangers from her nipples; an Irish muscle boy on steroids; drag queens; Ruby Venzuela. They were wonderful times when solo really was 'Soho'.  God knows what was going on in the dressing rooms most of them were on the game. I loved it. Really loved it and if you stumbled out onto the street at the end of the show, it was vomit and scent and I loved it. Really loved it". (link)

In a sense, his apprenticeship with Soho audiences was was to form the third formative influence on his life and he carried his skill with an audience to the urbane and more talkative half of the cabaret-style duo with Richard Sisson, 'Kit and the Widow'. It was here that he combined the confidence of an aristocrat with the flamboyance of an entertainer. Their act was in the manner of Tom Lehrer or Flanders and Swann, with them performing in white tie and tails, while delivering parodies, lyrics and sketches and they were three times nominated for an Olivier Award (link)

He had met Richard, 'The Widow', at Cambridge and 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. 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 and their impression of Margaret Thatcher bellowing, in relation to the Falkland Islands : “This was my war!”

Kit later said about his audiences : "If you can coax them in your beautiful  Oxbridge accent and you choir boy training and careful lyric writing to get their attention and then you stick the knife in, you're not preaching to the converted and you were preaching to the unconverted, which is much more valuable. Too often, looking back, we were perceived as toffs. I'm not really a toff. I'm not really and imperialist, but I can pretend to be a toff and an imperialist". Then, for example, he would 'stick the knife in' drawing attention to Clause 28, the series of laws across Britain which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities or would say : "Look, Africa's on its knees. We should  be helping it" and in relation to states in Africa : "But look, China's buying everything".

Kit took great pleasure when he described when he met Margaret Thatcher after she had retired as Prime Minister. He and Richard were to play at Jeffery Archer's house at the Old Vicarage in the village of Granchester, Cambridge, where she and her husband Denis were in the audience. Kit had half an hour's chat with her after the performance. He recalled : "She was just beginning to lose it. All her power at that stage was diminished, but her acolytes were there. You could see her thinking that : 'This is quite an interesting way of speaking truth to power' and the old girl slightly melted". (link)

The house was close to the River Cam and Kit continued : "It was wonderful because Denis was still alive and he was trying to shake off his 'Close Protection Squad' and went down to the secret grove where Rupert Brooke, where the golden children of the Edwardian period used to swim naked and got it out and started pissing away. And all the guards came down on him and tried to drag him back he said : "Can't a fellow have a piss in peace ?" There was wee everywhere. It was lovely. I giggled".

At the age of thirty-six in 1987, it was film producers Merchant-Ivory who had asked him : "To co-script their next project, the award-winning film 'Maurice', I took the job gladly", featuring Hugh Grant in one of his first screen roles. (link)
In 1994, he contributed one script for an episode of the BBC Dawn French comedy series 'The Vicar of Dibley'. The following year he scripted the Rowan Atkinson's 'Full Throttle', a TV autobiographical film about the racing life of Captain Henry "Tim" Birkin, a British gentleman racing driver of the nineteen thirties.(link) On the radio front, over many years he was a witty radio panellist on the BBC Radio 4 shows 'Just a Minute' (link) and 'Quote Unquote'.

In 1990, the great American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was made the first visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine’s College Oxford for one year and Kit was recruited as he he said, as one of his small group of eleven students who were his "disciples".  He said that he benefited from the great composer's "intellectual generosity" and said he had that : "Quiet confidence of a man who knows he's a genius" and : "He upbraided me for rhyming 'sirocco' with 'morocco' saying : "Because it's an 'identity' not a 'rhyme'. Go away and think of something else. A near rhyme is worse than no rhyme at all". Kit concluded : "We all benefited vastly form the experience and the little flames he lit are still burning away, a bit haphazardly, because theatre is very haphazard business".(link)

Kit said that he loved appearing in pantomime, usually playing the baddie such as 'King Rat' in a Dick Whittington at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, where as a child he had been taken by his grandmother. He regarded panto as an important part of a child’s cultural development and said of his role : "It's always 'villain' and I wouldn't do anything else. Villains traditionally come on first, so you've got a minute and you've got kids in the audience who've probably never been to the theatre before. You've got people in the audience who don't normally go to the theatre. It's a wonderfully diverse audience and you have, in that minute, to tell these kids : "This isn't X BOX. This isn't Disney. This is theatre and theatre is wonderful and astonishing and I'm going to scare the bejesus out of you". My record is nine children carried out screaming in the first minute and you think : "I've done it" and they came back, pacified with sweeties and then they're rapt".(link)

Kit appeared in his first Comedy Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011 and it 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 routine remained largely unchanged. He described James as : "A very talented composer and pianist and generally, all-round genial good egg".

Their rendition of Abba’s “Fernando” was rewritten in honour of a well-known chicken restaurant and to Abba’s tune and Kit would begin : “It’s extremely cheap at Nando’s, they’ve got an uber-friendly waiting staff to put you at your ease”, leading to the chorus : “There was something in the food that night that wasn’t right at Nando’s”. Part of the act was when he would extemporise and involve the audience by fixing some unfortunate woman with a stare and saying : “Look at the colour of that jumper, that’s pure Brora, she’s never been to Nando’s in her life”.(link)

In 2020 Kit told Paddy Cooper why it was becoming increasingly difficult for satirists to operate in front of audiences and said : "I try to make what I've always done, to make musically informed, hopefully, politically articulate points of a liberal nature, but there's elephant traps everywhere. I don't know what the answer is". (link) Kit was pessimistic about the future of satirical humourists working in front of live audiences and said : "If you've got an audience that's going to take offence that easily, then crucify you on twitter and kill your career, then you can't be funny".(link)

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Christopher 'Kit' Harvey was born in Africa, the son of Susan and Noël, in the British colony of Nyasaland in April 1957, seven years before it was granted impendence. He recalled : 'I was born in the Officers' Hospital in Zomba, a stunning Dutch Colonial town on the slopes of a high, misty plateau reminiscent of Scotland'. His was to be a privileged, upper middle class, colonial childhood since, three years before his birth, his father became one of the country's twenty-four, Assistant District Commissioners in 'Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service'. Kit said : 'There were three of us children, of whom I was the eldest. We spent weekends on the Lake shores amid the fishermen, and the crocs and hippos'. He remembered : 'The ayah who looked after me when I was little, she was a wonderful lady. Regularly drunk, she had no front teeth but saved my life after a snake bite, by biting me with her remaining teeth and sucking out the poison'.

His eight years in Nyasaland had a formative influence on him to the extent he said in 2018 : 'It was a magical childhood from which I learned a great deal, and for which I am very grateful. A few years ago, my sister and I visited this second poorest nation on earth. It is run down these days, but the people remain the same - beautiful, positive and sunny'. In 2020 he told Paddy Cooper : "Growing up there was incredibly instructive of human values of kindness of the environment and I hope that, that has inspired what I've written. My politics, despite my horrible imperialist past, are entirely liberal". In Kit's eyes, his father, played a major role in the creation of an independent Malawi and he said : "My Dad's job was to make sure that Nyasaland was handed over peacefully without bloodshed without a revolution with enough legislature and judiciary and a government structure of Nyasaland Africans, capable of running it smoothly and, bless him, he achieved it. There wasn't a revolution and there wasn't too much bloodshed".(link)

Kit also gained his first love of music at home by way of three long playing records played on a gramophone on the house verandah and consisted of a 1956 recording of Julian Slade's 'Salad Days'(link), 'At the Drop of a Hat' (link), the musical revue by Flanders and Swann, described by them as "an after-dinner farrago" with Swann on the piano and in which they both sang songs which were linked by contemporary social commentary and a collection of songs by Noel Coward. Kit said : "For the first eight years of my life that was it musically, for the West, for Europe. However all round us African rhythms, the dancing". In addition, he did have access to the family piano, which was lined with galvanized steel to make it termite-proof. 

Many years later he recalled 'The Nyasaland Cookery Book' and said : 'All wives of district commissioners were given this book, and my mother's battered copy is something I treasure. It's hilarious. Ovens were incredibly primitive, and the book tells you to throw a piece of paper into them. If it doesn't discolour it's alright for meringues; if it goes yellow it's alright for sponges; if it goes brown it's alright for roasts; if it catches fire, your oven is too hot'.

In 1964 Kit was packed off to an alien country called Britain and, in the family tradition, became a pupil at the boys boarding school, the Cathedral Choir School at Canterbury where, as he said : “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 365ft tower of the cathedral”. 

His school experience was to have the second biggest formative influence on his life, as he later reflected : "As a chorister we had to do a service eight times a week, so you got to learn all the great music, a lot about architecture and Latin and how to address an archimandrite and those useless bits of information proved, in the event, terribly useful" and 'In those days, with 30 masters for 50 pupils, it was an intense, extraordinary education'.(link) He considered himself to be : 'A professional musician at the age of 12' and "It was hard work. By God, I was grateful for that". 

In addition, in the company of his fellow choristers, Kit's subversive streak was already beginning to make its presence felt and he recalled :
"To entertain my fellow choristers during the boring sermons, I would rewrite the lyrics of the final hymn surreptitiously, to see if they could get through it without corpsing". He became Head Chorister and when his voice broke he was transferred as a boarder to Tonbridge Public School For Boys which he described as : "A ferociously muscular public school which only cares about cricket and rugger and I was rubbish at. So I thought I'd swim against the stream rather than with it". As a result he concentrated on literature, drama, and music.

Fifty years later, in 2021 'Kit and McConnel' were the star turn at Boris Johnson's 'Chequers  Centenary Dinner' to mark the hundred years since Lloyd George became the first Prime Minister to occupy the rural property away from smokey London. Of the five living ex-Prime ministers, only Theresa May attended the event. Kit delivered a politically incorrect ditty to celebrate Viscount Lee’s donation of the estate to David Lloyd George with : “Lloyd George was none too wealthy / And Welsh; therefore unhealthy”. (link)

His friend Fiona Carnarvon said : 

'He was a unique friend and star – the world is a greyer and quieter place without him'.


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With grateful acknowledgement to Paddy Cooper's interview with Kit for 'Dark Unicorn' for the insight it provided into his thoughts and character. (link)

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