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Harry Shearer and Judith Owen: Christmas Without Tears
At home with Harry Shearer and Judith Owen ...on a stage near you! The funny and talented couple will be joined by a host of amazing friends in London, Chicago and New Orleans for a traditional fireside Christmas that happens to help the homeless
Information and tickets: www.judithowen.net/
Harry and Judith, thanks for taking time to tell us about your festive fundraising show, Christmas Without Tears.
Harry: Yes, we're really delighted to be bringing it back to London, it's been a few years since we last did it there. It's a show that grew out of a party which Judith 'required' to be held here in Santa Monica, when we were both living here. As a proper melancholic Welsh woman she found that 'sunny' and 'warm' and 'Christmas' just an unacceptable combination! She said, let's have an old fashioned get-together inside – NOT down on the beach! – with friends who can sing or are funny or can cook. Everybody did a number or two about the holidays, reverent or irreverent, then Judith led carol-singing after dessert. Word got out and it moved to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. That was 2005, the year that New Orleans flooded and it was the first year we did it as a public event for charity. We've been doing it ever since, always in New Orleans and Chicago, usually in LA, and several years in London. This year it's in Chicago, New Orleans and London. We're the only ones who 'tour' – everybody else is taking the tube or the bus! and in every city we round up local talent who we know. This year I did The Last Leg, the television show hosted by Adam Hills, and we went over to his house for dinner and realized what a damn funny bloke he is, so we invited him to do something on Christmas Without Tears this year.
Recently Judith has expanded the ambit of it to include more variety oriented people – she produces the show – and we have people with circus skills and other amazing talents. There's no real format, it's just who's at the show, and Judith decides what would give a nice flow. It still concludes with Judith leading the audience in carols – she bids the audience divide into twelve sections and act out 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', and she gives crap prizes to the people who abase themselves most thoroughly.
Judith: This year I'm producing the show with our label manager, Steve Lee – the whole thing is really from the goodness of people's hearts. In every city it's for a local charity, usually for the homeless. We're doing the London show in collaboration with the Marylebone Music Festival – they invited me to perform at their festival the year before last and I was so blown away by what they do for the West London Mission, feeding and sheltering the homeless. In New Orleans it's always been about the Musicians' Clinic and Assistance Foundation – we started the show because of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Many musicians live a hand to mouth existence and don't have health insurance so they needed a lot of help then, and still do. We also raise money for Le Petit Theatre, an amazing historic theater in the French Quarter. In Chicago it's for Snow City Arts, a wonderful program which takes art therapy into hospital for children who are ill, they paint and sing and write and play instruments and it helps them get better at astoundingly improved rates. That's how I feel about music – I've spent a lot of my life talking about how music can help people in a difficult situation, in their physical or mental health.
Who should we look out for at the 2018 shows? [There's a full list below, for the London and US shows, in case you're flying home for Christmas – ed]
Harry: I hate to single out anybody, because there are special musicians in all the cities, but there's a guy who does our Chicago show every year who is just astonishing, Howard Levy. I think it's safe to say, even on a planet that contains Stevie Wonder, Howard is the world's best harmonica player, he does things on the harmonica that shouldn't be done!
Judith: We've added a second night in Chicago, and the first night will have a Broadway slant. A wonderful woman called Angela Ingersoll, who's well known for her Judy Garland show, will be performing our favorite Judy Christmas songs. But each show has the flavor of the city, each is special. I'm very excited that in New Orleans we have John Cleary. John's an expat Brit who's normally back in Britain for Christmas but he'll be in New Orleans this year. He's a dear friend of ours and despite being a Brit he's been living there since he was seventeen and he's one of the greatest pianists in New Orleans. Bryan Batt from Mad Men will be there too, he's a very funny guy. And in London we have Rob Brydon, Julia Fordham, Clare Teal and Glenn Tilbrook among others. It's the first time that the lovely people at the May Fair Hotel have hosted the show, they've donated the room, the staff, everything – we've been looking for a home from home in London and I hope this will be it.
You're the perfect interviewees for The American – you're an expat couple in both direction, a British-American pair who spend a lot of time on both sides of the Atlantic. How do you make it work?
Harry: Judith being a Brit wanted to have a foothold in the UK, and I've always been an Anglophile so in 2008 we got a place in London. I then started working in London so we both had reasons to be over there. New Orleans is the place where we both vote, and it's where I have most ties in terms of friendships and civic engagement. The we keep a place in Santa Monica, where we are now, because you never want to not have a place at the beach – Judith calls it our holiday home. Work is a very big determinant of where we will be at any given time. Judith just did a big European tour so she was setting foot in London from time to time.
Do you have routines, like Thanksgiving in the States, to keep your heads together?
No, it's different every year. Normally we'll spend Christmas in New Orleans or LA, but we have done it in London – it's just too bloody cold – for me, she loves it! And Thanksgiving has been in all three. The routines are more about keeping me on the same side of the bed.
What's the best thing about living in each other's country?
Harry: That's so easy! You turn on the telly to watch the news and they talk to you like you're a grownup. And they're not shoving adverts for pharmaceutical products down your throat at every turn. And the contrast between the audio and the video is shocking. People romping beside a lake and they're reciting this endless series of dire side effects at you – could cause premature death, could cause memory loss, could cause memory loss…
Judith: Living abroad helps you appreciate who you are and where you're from. I talk about this to other expat friends like Julia Fordham and Richard Thompson and John Cleary – there's something so specific about being British, it's like we talk in code. All those cultural references – and you notice it most in the humor, a certain wicked, joyful meanness. Luckily Harry is an Anglophile and a very funny man, he grew up idolizing British humor.
And what winds you up most about expat life?
Harry: Nothing, I love being over there.. except I gave a clue earlier, I'm not a cold weather person. I love those long summer days when the sun sets at ten o'clock at night. But I have to gird myself for the cold, the cold weather is not my friend.
Judith: The politics and the guns.
What's the best thing thing about being Harry Shearer?
Harry: Gee… I have to think about that! That I get to do, as work, what I love.
And the best thing thing about being Judith Owen?
Judith: I'm so glad that I live between these two places. I've met the most remarkable, wonderful people in America. I get to live in both countries and it keeps me sane. Maybe we need each other more than we think!
London, December 3rd
Rob Brydon, Clare Teal, Adam Hills, Julia Fordham, Miss Hope Springs, Ali McGregor, Clinton Baptiste, Kansas Smittys, Gabriella Swallow, Judith Owen, Harry Shearer.
Chicago December 8th & 9th [* December 9th only]
CJ Vanston, Angela Ingersoll, Jess Godwin, Donica Lynn, Amy Engelhardt, Nicholas Tremulis, Tommy Foster, Howard Levy*, Cathy Richardson*, Jim Peterik*, Judith Owen, Harry Shearer.
New Orleans December 17th & 18th [** December 18th only; *** December 18th only]
David Torkanowsky, Dayna Kurtz***, Walter Washington, Trixie Minx, Phil Degruy, Solid Harmony, Phil Degruy, Jon Cleary, Eric Bloom, Bryan Batt***, Tom McDermott, Evan Christopher, Tonya Boyd Cannon**, John Goodman**, Eric Bloom**, Judith Owen, Harry Shearer.