Kit Hesketh-Harvey, renaissance man of opera, film and theatre, dies suddenly aged 65

Kit Hesketh-Harvey, the musician, composer and screenwriter, has died suddenly aged 65.

The multi-talented entertainer, who performed for King Charles, enjoyed a prolific career that included writing the screenplay for director James Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice, starring a young Hugh Grant in one of his first onscreen roles.

His agent told The Independent he died unexpectedly but peacefully, while listening to Radio 3 and preparing for a Kit & McConnel show.

He was the brother of Sarah Sands, journalist and former editor of the Evening Standard. His death comes as a double blow to the family during an ongoing search for Ms Sands’s former husband, British actor Julian Sands, who went missing two weeks ago while hiking in southern California.

Ms Sands spoke of the shock over her brother’s death. She told The Independent: “Kit was dazzling – clever, original, funny, kind. The last time I saw him he was busy mapping out pilgrim routes across Norfolk; there was always the next adventure, the next joke. He gave and gave and gave.”

Known for his work on shows including The Vicar of Dibley, Hesketh-Harvey was married to the actor Katie Rabett, an original member of dance troupe Hot Gossip and former girlfriend of Prince Andrew, until the former couple’s recent, difficult divorce.

Born into a Foreign Office family in Malawi, Hesketh-Harvey was educated as a senior chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, then at Tonbridge School in Kent.

He studied English Literature while on a choral scholarship at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was also a member of the Footlights drama club.

Katie Rabett and Kit Hesketh-Harvey in 2014 (Alan Davidson/Shutterstock)
Katie Rabett and Kit Hesketh-Harvey in 2014 (Alan Davidson/Shutterstock)

After leaving his role as a producer for the BBC’s TV and music department to work on Maurice, Hesketh-Harvey went on to study under Stephen Sondheim, during the American musical theatre giant’s visiting professorship at Oxford University.

Later, he worked with Richard Curtis on the BBC’s hit comedy series The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French in the title role.

With pianist Richard Sisson, also a member of Footlights, he formed the cabaret double-act Kit and The Widow, in a partnership that lasted 30 years before concluding in 2012.

The duo, who emulated Flanders and Swann with their humorous songs, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and in West End theatres.

He was passionate about opera and classical music, once writing for The Guardian in 2010 about how he had brought the last days of Monterverdi – considered the father of modern opera – to life with his production Monterverdi’s Flying Circus.

His translation of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow was transferred from Leeds-based company Opera North to the Sydney Opera House in 2011.

Interviewed by The Independent for a feature about his “dream home” in 1995, Hesketh-Harvey recalled his childhood spent on the shores of Lake Malawi, “fringed with rainforest, white sand and African fishing villages”.

Kit Hesketh-Harvey outside the family home in Norfolk with then-wife Katie Rabett (Getty)
Kit Hesketh-Harvey outside the family home in Norfolk with then-wife Katie Rabett (Getty)

Choosing a piano as his “luxury item”, he joked of how the family instrument of his childhood was lined with “112 of galvanised steel” to protect it from termites.

“It would be reassuring to have the ayah who looked after me when I was little,” he said. “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.”

As well as his many artistic pursuits, Hesketh-Harvey also served as the “agony uncle” in his column for Country Life magazine.

He is survived by his wife Rabett, and his two children, Augusta and Rollo. They shared a house in Norfolk and a holiday home in Cornwall.

“We are devastated to learn today of the death of long-term PBJ Management friend and client Kit Hesketh-Harvey,” his agent said in a statement to The Independent. “Kit died unexpectedly but peacefully, listening to Radio 3 and preparing for a Kit & McConnel show.”

“A client for over three decades, Kit was a uniquely talented and erudite performer, writer, composer, wit, singer, actor, all round entertainer and above all devoted father. [Agency co-founder Peter Bennett-Jones] originally knew kind, clever Kit at university and toured the UK and US with him in The Comedy of Errors in 1978.”

“He joined the agency on it being formed in the late Eighties. Kit’s Edinburgh performances in Kit and the Widow and Kit & McConnel for over 40 years are the stuff of legend and consistently one of the funniest shows in town. He will be hugely mourned by so many people who were fortunate enough to have known this special man.

“We wish all his family and friends deep sympathy and condolences at this very sad time. Kit left indelible joyous memories for us all and he leaves an unfillable gap in all our lives.”