Aaron Eckhart plays baddies best – and his latest role, as a champion of the tobacco industry, reaches new depths. ‘I think if I chose to, I could manipulate pretty much any room I entered,’ he tells Nigel Farndale

‘Look at them,’ Aaron Eckhart says, as he studies the Londoners outside the bar opposite, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. ‘They are talking, and laughing, and drinking. But I can’t see anyone smoking. Can you see anyone smoking? The anti-smoking lobby has won. They have turned smokers into pariahs.’

The 38-year-old Hollywood actor is sipping coffee in the shade of an awning and, as he studies the nonsmokers, I study him: his dusty blond, side-parted fringe; his irregular features; his cold, narrow eyes. He has a jaw like that of a cartoon character, square and dimpled – so dimpled, in fact, that curious strangers have been known to come up and explore his chin with their fingertips.

He also has a disarmingly wide and lupine smile that reveals his back teeth. He uses this to great effect in his new film, Thank You For Smoking, a wry and biting satire on the world of the Washington lobbyist. It is based on Christopher Buckley’s acclaimed 1994 novel of the same name, the one that opens with the line: ‘Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.’

Eckhart plays Naylor.

Although best known as Julia Roberts’s smooth-talking biker boyfriend in Erin Brockovich, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s thoughtful lover in Possession, Eckhart is at his most formidable as an actor when playing anti-heroes. His character in this film makes his living defending the rights of smokers and the profits of his tobacco baron boss, played by Robert Duvall.

‘He’s a yuppie version of Mephistopheles,’ Eckhart says. ‘He’s a spin doctor with a moral flexibility that is beyond most people. For audiences, I think, watching him practise his dark art will have the thrill of the taboo. Naylor is proud of what he does. He loves to argue because arguing well means never having to say you’re wrong.’

The film opens with Naylor on a talk show about to be verbally attacked by the other guests, who are all anti-smoking, include a boy dying of cancer. Instead of being daunted, he turns the tables on his accusers.

With his deadly, winning smile he asks the audience, ‘Why would we want to kill this lad when people like him grow up to be our best customers?’ Though Eckhart doesn’t smoke himself – he gave up three years ago with the help of a hypnotherapist – he does go along with the libertarian arguments presented in this film.

‘The first thing to remember is that it is not illegal to smoke,’ he says. ‘The second thing is that lobbying is not illegal. If it was, it would be a different proposition. As it is, we are left with a conscientious argument, not a legal argument. Anyway, who is going to speak for all those millions of people who do like to smoke? I assume that everybody, essentially, knows what is right and wrong, so let them choose. If someone wants to smoke and die at 50, let them die at 50. I’m not talking about health care and secondary smoking here, those are slightly different issues. But as long as someone is smoking and not hurting anyone, I say let them.’

In order to empathise with his character in Thank You For Smoking, Eckhart spent time with lobbyists. ‘The tobacco lobbyists I’ve met have been delighted with this film because they feel like they have been let out of a cage. They felt so hated. So oppressed. They felt like there was a cloud above them. Now they feel their voice has been freed and that they are not such bad people, after all. It’s funny, they told me all the strategies they use to pass legislation and influence people.

‘They don’t seem to feel any personal responsibility. Like lawyers, they feel their job is to present the best argument and then they wash their hands. They probably know that what they are doing is immoral but they have learnt to live with it. Like Nick Naylor, they have learnt to face the world with smiles on their faces.’

That Eckhart smile: it is electrifying, in the execution sense of the word. The director of the film told him that whenever his character got into trouble he had to deploy that smile ruthlessly. ‘When I was growing up, I had one of those hard faces that made it difficult for other people to know what I was feeling, so my mother told me to show my feelings more, to smile more. Perhaps I over compensated. In the film you have people spitting at my character and him smiling back. The smile helps you to like him, despite yourself. It is the cult of personality.

‘You want to believe him. He invites trust and confidence. Tony Blair is a good example of that. He is always smiling, so you want to believe him.’

Eckhart is, he says, more aware of the power of his smile than he used to be. ‘I think if I chose to I could manipulate pretty much any room I entered. Sorry, that sounds more boastful than I intended. What I mean is, if I arrive at a party and walk in slowly and confidently, and make eye contact, and smile, I know I can take control of that room. It’s also to do with being curious about people, putting them at their ease and making them laugh. Bill Clinton was brilliant at that, and Warren Beatty: ladies would say that when he talked to them they would feel like they were the only person on Earth.’

It wasn’t always that way. Eckhart used to be shy and insecure. It was partly to do with his childhood. He was born and raised outside San Jose, California, where his father worked for a computer firm. But when he was 13, his family moved to England. They lived in Cobham in Surrey, where he and his younger brother attended the American Community School.

‘I tell you, I wanted to shoot myself. In California the sun was always shining, I had just started surfing, getting into girls, not getting beaten up. In England it was always raining, we lived in a small flat, and I had to take the bus. It was very scary for me at first. I got really introverted for a while. We would come home and torture our mother for bringing us here. Within a year, though, I discovered I was allowed to go anywhere in Europe on holiday trips. My father felt guilty for bringing us here, you see.’

His parents are Mormons and when Eckhart returned to America at the age of 17, he went to Brigham Young, the Mormon university in Utah. ‘Am I still a Mormon? Well, I do think of myself as one, but I tend to make my own decisions about my lifestyle. All the things you associate with the Mormon church – being against alcohol, tobacco and homosexuals – well, I am more liberal about those things. I used to feel guilty when I drank, though. I knew it was a destructive force in my life. I wasn’t hiding bottles or anything, but I drank a lot and would get into fights. I took hypnosis for that, too. Stopped three years ago.’ He smiles. ‘I haven’t been invited back to BYU to speak, by the way, so I guess they don’t approve of me there.’

It was at the university that he met his long-time collaborator, the director and playwright Neil LaBute. LaBute’s confrontational style and malevolent humour seemed to complement Eckhart’s. They have done four films together – relatively low-budget art-house movies – most memorably, the surprise box-office hit In the Company of Men, made in 1997.

Eckhart plays an angry young marketing man who befriends another angry young marketing man. Dumped by their girlfriends, they decide to take revenge on the opposite sex by simultaneously seducing and dumping a vulnerable, deaf secretary – just because they can. ‘Boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle,’ is how LaBute summed it up. ‘Women would come up to me after that film and say they hated me and that I was a prick,’ Eckhart says, matter-of-factly.

‘One woman came straight up and slapped me.’

He reflects upon how strange it is that some people cannot accept that actors can be different from the characters they play. I ask how his own personality differs from those of the misanthropes he has so often played. ‘I do have mood swings, but I’m working on them and I do think I’m naturally quite breezy. I think it is to do with maturity. Since I stopped drinking and smoking I have become an exponentially more positive person. I’ve partaken in drugs occasionally, but I’ve never had a problem. They’d always scared me enough not to be a user. I like to work and stay fit. I wake up at six in the morning. Try and fill my day usefully.’

When I suggest that LaBute put him on the map, Eckhart becomes defensive. ‘Well, we helped each other. He had the good words and I said them in the way he wanted. Neil has a unique vision. He likes to cast a certain type of actor – classic, all-American looks – because it hurts more. If you can get the audience to fall in love with the character on appearances alone, then…’

He tails off. ‘You wanted to trust the characters I played. They were worldly, well-educated people who didn’t seem naturally dark. Yet they would rip your heart out. I got to Neil first. I called him. I used to act with him in his own plays at college where he was the other character. In that way I got to hear how he delivered his own dialogue.

‘Actors always want to over-emphasise words but that’s not how it is with Neil. He is almost deadpan, saying lines confidently and unemotionally. It makes it more malicious. More manipulative.’

I ask Eckhart if he is ever manipulative when he is dating. ‘If you study body language, which I do, you learn that you can say things with every part of your body. When you apply that knowledge to your relationships it gives you control. I’m aware of using my knowledge of body language when dating, sure. If I’m talking with a girl I can tell whether she likes me by the direction her feet are pointing. I can made judgments based on that. It gives you an advantage. You’re doing it naturally anyway, it’s just when you know about it, it lets you be two steps ahead.’

Do women ever say they find him difficult to live with? He pauses, smiles and avoids the question. ‘Being with a different girl all the time is not fulfilling. I’m sort of with someone at the moment, not strongly but getting there. I want to be monogamous, living on my ranch in Montana. I feel like I ought to get married and have children. I need to share my life with someone.’

Does he use his body-language skills in acting, too? ‘Yes. Absolutely. You bet. If you want to influence and control the audience you can do it a bit through your movements. People all know about how when a person lies they cover their mouth, say, but you can be more subtle and subliminal than that. For one role I would put my hands on my hips like this whenever my character was lying.’

He demonstrates. ‘It would just build up and some people might notice it and others might not.’ He sits back in his seat. ‘Look at my body language now,’ he says. ‘I have an open posture, leaning back, making eye contact. This says I am feeling relaxed. It also says I want you to like me because you are writing about me.’

Is he playing a role, manipulating the situation, during this interview? ‘Not really, but I know what you mean.’

We talk about how, during the filming of The Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman would run before a take so that he seemed genuinely out of breath. Laurence Olivier, his co-star, famously dismissed this approach by asking Hoffman why he didn’t just act being out of breath.

‘I’m with Dustin on this,’ Eckhart says. ‘If you need to be out of breath, why not be out of breath? It gets your blood up, gets you excited and lets you concentrate on other aspects of your character. In that sense I think of myself as a method actor. I will manipulate the people around me. To make a love scene more convincing, I will flirt with my leading ladies from the moment I walk on set.’ He smiles his vulpine smile again, teeth bared. ‘And no, before you ask, I’ve never had an on-set relationship.’


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.