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Real countess of Downton Abbey remembers her ‘unique friend’ Kit Hesketh-Harvey

Thought Leader: Fiona Carnarvon
February 1, 2023
Written by: Lady Fiona Carnarvon

t seems unbelievable to hear that a dear friend has died. I have known Kit Hesketh-Harvey for more years than I can count – every year and every day spent in his company was full of friendship and laughter. I cannot think of a celebration, planned or not, that he has not entertained us at.

He was gifted with a wonderful singing voice, a love of music and people, an intellectual curiosity and an acute sense of the ridiculous. Following in the footsteps of the famous double act of Flanders and Swann, he created a much loved cabaret show with, firstly, The Widow – and latterly with James McConnel. Kit was a lyricist, actor, and singer – in fact, he was very good at almost everything. He joined us for Burns Night and recited the “ode to the haggis”, which was very much his own version. The entire dining room was left crying with laughter – his rendition was interesting and colourful (I did say, almost everything).

From Clare College, Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar under John Rutter and a member of the Footlights, he went on to win many plaudits and awards. He was nominated for three Olivier awards, translated opera, wrote libretto and recently was thrilled as he was back in the fold on Radio 3. He wrote a column in Country Life and was nominated again for writer of the year. A highlight for me at Christmas was to go and heckle him at the pantomime at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, where he was always the dastardly character of course.

Nothing, however, mattered more than his family: his sisters of whom he was so proud, his daughter Gus who inherited his voice and his son Rollo; who was eminently more sensible than his father as well as being happily married – Kit adored his grandson, Ivo.

Kit was an exuberant, flamboyant performer who used to float down to breakfast in various silk dressing gowns – although he found the last few years very hard. Covid posed many challenges to such performers, whose life and finances depend on people, on entertaining, on bringing light and life to those around them.

Setting aside the Kit who was on stage, the Kit who came so often to stay was also a part of our Highclere family. I once found him on his knees at breakfast in the dining room proposing to our housekeeper, Diana (he had been calling her the wrong name). He would arrive in his Le Van Blanc (white van) and park right outside the castle front door and then offer guided tours of his faithful converted van, as needed.

He spent Christmas with us this year – we were quite near the pantomime and he had a day or two off. He “helped” by conducting songs from musical whistles in the crackers – it was simply dreadful (anyone would have been hard put to recognise even ‘Jingle Bells’); but my goodness, we laughed. He became the audience, rather than the performer, as my husband Geordie and my nieces acted out the Hugh Grant scene in Love Actually of dancing down the stairs. He nearly offered Geordie a part in his next performance.

From the very low moments, struggles and tears of the past few years, he seemed to have emerged once more and was really looking forward to some exciting projects. The past January weekend was filled with many ideas and happy thoughts.

Friendship is so often about time. On friendship, Winnie the Pooh says: “A friend is someone who helps you up when you’re down, and if they can’t, they lay down beside you and listen.”

Kit was, at times, tired and hollowed out by all he had been through. We recently talked about Cornwall, which he loved and adored deep within his soul – and which is where I have spent much of my life, too. He was finally putting the last, tiring efforts of the recent past behind him. He had achieved so much, and has left us far too soon.

For years, now, he has been part of my life and Highclere’s life, adored by everyone. He will be missed terribly by all. He had many gifts and he worked very hard. He was a unique friend and star – the world is a greyer and quieter place without him.

Lady Fiona Carnarvon is the 8th Countess of Carnarvon and chatelaine of Highclere Castle, the filming location for Downton Abbey

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