Harry Shearer and Judith Owen present Christmas Without Tears at King’s Place
16:00 30 November 2016
Comedian Harry Shearer and singer Judith Owen talk to Zoe Paskett about meeting through Spinal Tap, embracing a sing-a-long, Donald Trump and making Christmas great again
Harry Shearer and Judith Owen walk through the door wearing two of the most glorious hats I’ve ever seen – one bright green, the other Pharrell style huge.
“It was the biggest one I could find,” Judith tells me, regaining composure after an arduous drive through traffic.
You’ll know comedian-actor-satirist Harry as one (or both) of two things: the voice of the best characters on the Simpsons – Mr Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and more – or for his role as the legendary Derek Smalls from arguably the greatest rock band of all time, Spinal Tap.
Drawn to him, inevitably, for his prowess on the bass, not to mention the concealed courgette, singer-songwriter Judith has released numerous albums to critical acclaim.
Settling into chairs, the pair are getting excited about their upcoming annual extravaganza.
“When I spent my first Christmas in London,” says Harry, “I fully grasped the impulse behind the lights and decorations, which is that it’s already been a month of grey grimness. Something has to keep you going!”
Christmas Without Tears can be traced back to Judith’s move to live with Harry in LA and was originally a private event for a few special friends – think Tom Hanks and Steve Martin.
“It was an antidote to Christmas for me because I get really down at Christmas,” says Judith. “Like a lot of people, I have a love hate relationship with it. It’s overwhelming and it’s lonely and people don’t have money and struggle.
“People were calling up months before to see if they were on the guest list. They were having such a good time, because I’m not the only one, it turns out, who struggles with Christmas.”
It turned into a charity event the year of hurricane Katrina and, in the 11 years since, has supported causes relating to homelessness, mental health and musicians’ assistance.
“We always try to sing Christmas with the Devil together because it is the first thing we ever collaborated on,” says Judith. “Spinal Tap is the reason we are together. Everything comes back to Spinal Tap obviously, because I am such a huge fan. When they came back in the nineties to do the Albert Hall, that was what changed everything, changed my life. So it’s an homage to that.
“That is your song, isn’t it?” she asks Harry.
“You can’t claim really but, well, yeah,” he says. He pauses, and adds: “You can’t dust for vomit.” I envy me for doing this interview.
On the bill for this year’s show is a variety of music and comedy: Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, Chris Difford from Squeeze, Stephen Merchant and Barry from Watford to name a few.
“We went to see Barry when he was doing these bingo shows and I literally had snot coming out of my nose,” says Judith. “It was horrendous, I was laughing so much.”
It’s wonderful to see how enamoured the two of them are with the guests they’ve invited, even after so many years of doing the show. And they aren’t the only ones – they say they have converted many people to the church of sing-a-long.
“I remember this guy who once said to us: ‘When my girlfriend told me she bought tickets to a sing-a-long, I said, why don’t you just stab my eyes out right now? But now I want to come every year,” Harry says, proudly.
It’s one for the participation enthusiasts, and there are even prizes, albeit “sh*t” ones.
All it is currently missing, says Judith, is an acrobat and a dog.
Her own music will make an appearance, as she decides on the spot that she’ll be singing Somebody’s Child, the title track of her new album.
The song is “about seeing someone before Christmas time in Manhattan: a barefoot, naked apart from rubbish bags, enormously pregnant, beautiful girl on the street, out of her mind on drugs.
“To me it makes sense that I would sing something that’s about not forgetting the forgotten point of Christmas – to think about the people who are struggling.”
And of course, in his truest form of political satirist, Harry has penned his yearly borderline inappropriate festive tune, Christmas a la Trump.
“It’s imagining how he would improve Christmas in every single way,” he says. “A grandiose, nouveau-riche, no taste slathering of gold leaf on the greenery. But it’s bigger and it’s better. It’s approaching Christmas with this sense of bullsh*t bombast that is intrinsic in the Trump name.”
As some of his previous numbers include A Sarajevo Christmas, during the Balkan War, and Christmas Time for OJ, wondering how OJ Simpson would celebrate in jail, it makes sense to wonder whether any topic is off limits.
“No story is off limits but there are parts of any story that are off limits,” he says. “Be funny. Funny beats everything.
“But there is no country where taking offense has been taken to such a high art as America right now.”
With the new president, you could assume that he might be nervous, but not in the slightest.
“I’m not worried about satire. We’re a fringe element of society at the best of times. To practice the art well you have to not have favourites. If you’re flattered by having a politician sitting next to you, you’re in the wrong business.”
It’s safe to say we’ll get quite a mix of entertainment at Christmas Without Tears.
“Harry is mystery and irreverence, which is your job as a political satirist. And I’m all emotional but I’m not schmaltzy. I’m also a big shouting bitch queen on the stage with a massive wig. I know the power of panto.”
Christmas Without Tears is on at King’s Place on December 8, with additional guests Jacqui Dankworth, Charlie Wood, Doña Oxford, Kansas Smitty’s House Band and Tina C. Money raised from the evening goes to Shelter and the Copenhagen Youth Project.
Tickets and more info: kingsplace.co.uk
Harry and Judith have a message for all the dog lovers:
“Want your beloved pooch to star in Christmas Without Tears? Then tweet a Christmassy attired pic of your canine and she/he could be picked to join us on December 8 as the Dog of Xmas! Besides, don’t we all just want to look at photos of dogs in antlers?!”
Tweet @islingtongztte and @JudithOwen with a picture by December 6.