Kit Hesketh Harvey

Published April 17, 2008

Showing unnecessary humility, Kit Hesketh Harvey, who wrote the book for the dark and spangly extravaganza that is Beautiful And Damned at the Lyric, describes himself as “a hack”. If this is the case he is very much a hack of all trades, having crammed 21 years of cabaret performances alongside The Widow, numerous endeavours in Musical Theatre, various stints as a daytime TV presenter and regular appearances on Radio 4 institution, Just A Minute into his still not all that long life. Tom Bowtell managed to catch him between career changes for a chinwag (he has a most distinguished chin.)

Set in the roaring 20s, Beautiful And Damned tells the tragic story of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald who were the Posh and Becks of The Jazz Age. Scott, a young author destined for greatness and Zelda, his stylish and idolised young wife, were the envy of the world with their ultra glamorous, fast spending, luxurious lifestyle. However, behind the glorious facade that the world got to see, a darker story was actually being lived out. It is these contrasting worlds of glamour and darkness that Kit Hesketh Harvey has attempted to capture in his book for the musical…

“Writing books for musicals is just hideous. I mean anyone can write a lyric or a tune but the book is really the hardest thing to get right so it really is quite challenging.” Kit is obviously aware that the book is the unsung element of many musicals, often dismissed by many as the vehicle by which the show hops from one song to another. He now seems satisfied with how things have come together, but admits that it was difficult balancing act. “We didn’t want to alienate the Fitzgerald experts who are legion and who, quite rightly, guard Scott and increasingly Zelda quite jealously. There are two camps – those that are pro Scott and those that are pro Zelda – it’s a bit like Ted And Sylvia. So we had to keep them happy while making the show accessible so people can come and see the show knowing not a thing and find a story which speaks to them. Touch wood [he touches wood] we’ve managed to pull that off – most people seem to be moved by it and we’ve had American experts in who came to see it and said 'yep, it’s good' and people who knew nothing about it have come and said ‘yep, that’s good.’ So that’s good”.

"This fantastic cocaine tap routine"

Kit is a fruitily gushing fan of F Scott Fitzgerald’s work “I’m a huge fan – I mean the man could not write badly and every single line is gorgeous.” But he admits that it has been hard to squeeze the quality of his books into a musical format. “Obviously we had to find a way of saying that Scott wrote all these great books, but we had to condense them right down, you can’t have reams of text in the middle of a musical. There are a couple of songs which use some of his words – there’s a song called Tender Is The Night and there’s a song called This Side Of Paradise and then they [songwriters Roger Cook and Les Reed] have come up with this beautiful song called Beautiful And Damned. There’s also a little jazz ballad which feeds into this fantastic cocaine tap routine which captures the mood-change from the more assimilable 20s to the edgier 30s when everything was beginning to go wrong”.

“Cocaine tap routines” aren’t exactly de rigeur in West End musicals, so is Beautiful And Damned consciously more salacious than competitors such as the more sugary Thoroughly Modern Millie? “I don’t know if it’s salacious, it’s just more the desperation really – I mean the Wall Street Crash has happened and the whole world is unravelling and these expat-Americans have been cut adrift in Europe with their lives going decidedly wrong. It was kind of what was going on in Paris at the same time as Cabaret was happening in Berlin and one wanted to show that thrill and edginess and danger.”

When he isn’t producing the book for era-defining musicals and providing assistance from the sidelines (“I’ve seen about half of the shows so far and I’m making numerous suggestions”) Kit’s other main occupation is as one half of the cabaret comedy double act Kit And The Widow. Did he find it difficult to break free from his usual glib flippancy and wordsmithery? “It was a challenge to adjust my style to Roger’s music – I mean his skill is writing marvellous great singable lines that sit happily on the voice and are told in simple language – while my lyrical style is more levitated and betrays that I studied under the blessed Stephen Sondheim… So integrating the two has been fun.”

"I'd love to play the embittered sister who doesn't marry"

While this is the first time he has been commissioned to work on the book for a musical, he is merely damp behind the ears as a bookwriter: “I have written the books for musicals wot I have wrote – various corpses littering the wayside – so it’s not completely unknown territory but getting it right and, particularly, getting it right for the West End is a fairly big challenge for me.” Being a notable performer himself, did he manage to resist penning a cameo role for himself in Beautiful And Damned? “Yes, I’d love to play the embittered sister who doesn’t marry… but it’s not to be. Although we’ve had a couple of dancers sustaining fairly nasty injuries – the dancing is astonishing – so who knows, I met yet be called up – although I’m actually the worst dancer in the world.”

While Kit is refreshingly candid for much of the interview, he becomes impenetrable when it comes to the mystery-shrouded source of the name of his cabaret partner: The Widow. “Ah, that is something we never reveal. It has gone down the years and become a bit of a myth; in truth the real story is boring it’s much more interesting to keep it open – but it has been very resolute in many ways over the years both bleakly and wonderfully.” The Widow’s real name is Richard Sisson, who has composed the music for Alan Bennett’s new play at the National Theatre. “We’ve both got big openings this week” comments Kit, with a hint of naughtiness.

During their 21 years as a duo, Kit And The Widow have played to a swathe of the world’s odder audiences: “yes, there have been some interesting ones. They’ve all been a bit all over the place. I mean we played to a camp full of copper miners during the first Gulf unpleasantness when we played to men who hadn’t seen a woman for a year; Joan Rivers in Sydney State Opera House was fantastic and there was a splendid one where the leg of a piano fell of mid-performance and things got a bit violent.” As well as doing performances at (broadly) theatrical venues Kit And The Widow can also be hired to perform personalised birthday cabaret, and have developed finely honed skills for finding out scurrilous details about their victims to sing about: “Oh yes! If it’s a tycoon or captain of industry we get hold of their Mrs Moneypenny figure, get her drunk, and get her to dish all the dirt. If it’s somebody’s birthday you generally target the younger brother… we’re doing one for Clarence House next week, so I guess MI6 are probably the ones to ask…”

Lurking in the more peculiar corners of the Kit And The Widow website (visit www.kitandthewidow.com) are some lofty and implausible claims, so I take this opportunity to challenge Kit on their veracity:

Has Kit And The Widow performed for all of the Royal Family apart from Prince Phillip? “Yes! It’s true – I think – maybe not Princess Alice, bless her, but she wouldn’t know any more as she’s 101, but we have indeed managed to tot them all up over the years.”

Does Kit really hate golf? “Yes. I detest it. 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. Mostly, it’s because the Widow loves it so much. He plays with the stage golfing society with Brucie and Tarbie and all those animated toupees. Oh I think it’s such a depressing way of treating the countryside. All these sterilised little lawns and places where the public can’t go – you’ll have to excuse me, I get very Janet Street Porterish when it comes to these matters. Oh and I really hate all that Masonic nonsense that goes on on the golf course – middle executives trying to be more than middle executives which I find, as I have said, completely depressing.”

Why does The Widow’s car always smell of smoked Mackerel? Kit guffaws. “I’ve been putting prawns into his glove compartment. No it’s his dog, his ancient bitch who is the surviving half of a dog double act Gert and Daisy who were a brace of Schnauzers, and Daisy eats heaps of this awful tuna-based dog food, which stinks.”

"The musical is suffering from a crisis of identity"

Another interesting titbit that his larder-like website holds is the news that Kit’s favourite film is Thoroughly Modern Millie, the stage version of which is currently playing at the Shaftesbury and which, with its roaring 20s setting, is a direct competitor for Beautiful And Damned. “It is my favourite film and I haven’t managed to see the West End version yet, I will after this has opened, because it’s direct competition, isn’t it? Millie vs Zelda. I mean ours is a much darker story – and a much meatier one – but I can’t praise Millie enough as a movie. I was once on this screenwriting course and we were asked to chose our favourite films and everyone chose the bleakest Tarkovskys or the most impenetrable Buñuel so I said ‘sorry’ it’s Thoroughly Modern Millie cos what you see is what you get!’ They didn’t really dignify that with a response.

One of the reasons why Kit is pleased with beautiful and Damned is that it is an “original, English” piece of musical theatre conceived from scratch. He treats with suspicion musicals which are built around the existing songs of pop bands or rock legends: “I think the musical is suffering from a crisis of identity. I think that what has happened is kind of like what has happened with the school league tables: the expensive ones have become ridiculously expensive to the point where cheap ones can’t get on anymore and people are falling back on back-catalogue musicals, or for compilation musicals, or for revivals or for stage versions of films. People aren’t in a position to back new and unproven song-writing teams. I think that the public has followed where the producers have gone – which is why I think this deserves to do well.”

It is clear that Kit fiercely believes in Beautiful And Damned yet he is rakishly flirting with fate by appearing on the panel of pundits on the Radio 4 programme Fabulous Flops – a show devoted to unmitigated disasters from the world of musical theatre. “Some eyebrows have been cocked at me about that, yes. There was of course the fabulous Which Witch [a Norwegian gothic rock opera] which is still an enormous success in Norway. I must hasten to add to your readers that I had only a very minor involvement in that production, translating some Norwegian lyrics, and Beautiful And Damned is much better”.

"Nicholas Parsons isn't evil!"

As well as his involvement in musicals (floppy or otherwise) and his 2.1 decades of Kit And The Widowry, Kit’s other most notorious bowstring is his position as a regular panellist on Radio 4’s venerable quiz show Just A Minute. I gave him 60 seconds to tell me about this British institution: “I adore doing it and it is the most thrilling thing to do, although I sneakily suspect that I’m kind of the B-team and they wheel me on when one of the regulars has pulled out or died. But it’s true, you can write novels, you can translate lyrics for the Royal Opera, you can put on West End musicals but all that anyone will remember you for is Just A Minute.” Is Nicholas Parsons as nice as he seems? Or does he have an evil side? “He’s not evil! I mean he couldn’t be more of a poppet, but he knows exactly what he’s doing and is very shrewd about it and everyone – even grandees like Paul [Merton] kowtow to Nicholas and respect his maturity. Nicholas is going to be difficult, if not impossible to replace – although he tells me he’s only 17, so he won’t retire for a while yet!” Would Kit himself be willing to step into the breach? “Oh yes! I’m up for it! That would be marvellous”.