There is something about Alfred Molina’s body language today which suggests sheepishness. But what? The defensive way he draws in his shoulders, perhaps. Or the way he folds his arms as he grins. He’s a solidly built 6ft 3in, so these may be examples of a big man’s natural self-consciousness. And it might be that his look of slight vulnerability is more to do with his eyes, which are soft and dark, like those of a cow. Or his clothes. He is wearing white socks with jeans and what looks like one of those shirts you go bowling in. Perhaps this sartorial geekiness is what makes him look a little awkward.
On the other hand, if he is not entirely comfortable with the idea that he is here in London to plug The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an all-action family movie in which he co-stars with Nicolas Cage, that would be understandable. It is meant to be the blockbuster of the summer, not least because it cost $150 million to make and is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the most commercially successful filmmaker in Hollywood history. From Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop to the Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure (one of six previous collaborations with Cage) Bruckheimer has had the Midas touch, prompting the Washington Post to call him ‘the man with the golden gut’.
But The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opened in the States a few weeks ago to a ‘disappointing’ box office. And this follows another Bruckheimer ‘disappointment’, Prince of Persia, also starring Molina. So, I ask the 57-year-old actor, how does it feel to be part of Bruckheimer’s first losing streak? He’s given this one some thought. ‘The weekend The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opened in America it was number 3 at the box office,’ he says, leaning forward in his chair. ‘And Disney executives were quoted as saying they were “disappointed”. I thought, how can that be disappointing? It made 17 million dollars in its first weekend. It will carry on making money and by the end of the year the film will have paid for itself several times over. The whole accounting ethic is very confused.’
Fair enough. What about working with Nicolas Cage, then? As much a loon as his reputation allows? ‘I am aware of his reputation for eccentricity, but I don’t quite know where it comes from.’
Saying things like he won’t eat animals that don’t have ‘dignified sex’, perhaps? ‘I don’t know about that, but he did tell me he had a gluten allergy so he doesn’t eat wheat. He goes to great lengths to find bread made from corn or rice. He has a strict diet.’ Molina leans back in his chair now, hands behind his head, the awkward questions apparently out of the way. ‘I liked him. The Nicolas Cage I met and worked with was incredibly polite and very serious about the work. Very collaborative. He loves stories such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Fascinated by Arthurian legend. A Merlinian buff. He was the engine of enthusiasm for the film. But yes, I’ve heard all the stories, too.’
Molina seems to be a tactful man generally. He is currently in Roger And Val Have Just Got In, a BBC2 sitcom in which he co-stars with Dawn French. It is shot without an audience, in real time, with each episode being the first 30 minutes of the evening, when the couple come home from their jobs — he is a botanist, she a domestic science teacher. During the filming French was in the middle of her separation from Lenny Henry, not that Molina noticed. ‘I had no idea about the split, that must have all been going on at the time but she didn’t bring it along. I read it in the papers along with everyone else. The series was great fun to work on. Just the two of us.’
Although television has always been something of a sideline for Molina, it wasn’t for his wife Jill Gascoine, who made her name with the 1980s series The Gentle Touch. They met in 1982 when they were working together at the Donmar in the musical Destry Rides Again and they married four years later. Though she is 72 now, 16 years older than him, the age gap has never been an issue for either of them, he says, though he can understand why people might be intrigued by it. They’re very happy together and their marriage has survived some tough times — Gascoigne has suffered severe depression, on and off, and kidney cancer (from which she made a full recovery). The couple have three children between them, she has two sons from an earlier marriage and he has a daughter from an earlier relationship. Tellingly, when I ask Molina why he hasn’t always excerised quality control in his choice of film roles, signing up for lowbrow blockbusters instead of the highbrow arthouse film with which he made his name, it is the children he makes reference to. ‘It’s put two of my kids through college.’
Could this be the real reason why Molina is looking sheepish? Here, after all, is a man who trained at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, began his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been in some of the best arthouse movies ever made, from Stephen Frears’s 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, in which he portrayed a menacing Kenneth Halliwell (Joe Orton’s lover and killer), to An Education in which he played the buttoned up father of Lynn Barber, whose memoir inspired the film. Barber has written that she found Molina’s Oscar-nominated performance ‘positively heart-rending’, which is quite an accolade, coming from her. On stage, meanwhile, Molina has won acclaim (as well as various Tony and Bafta nominations) for his performances in intelligent, powerful plays such as Red, about the life of the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. With his dark, beetling eyebrows, Molina does fierce intensity well. He can be a thoughtful and subtle actor. So what, apart from the children, is he doing it slumming it in all these blockbusters? Are they worthy of his talents? Does he find them artistically rewarding?
‘Well, Michael Caine once said that in order to sustain a high standard of living you have to be in a low standard of film. But actually the acting pleasure is the same in the two types of film. Different parts make different demands on you. A completely fictitious character gives you freedom to use your imagination, but when you are playing a character from recent history, then you have to be more careful about accuracy.’
His method, he explains, is to absorb as much information as he can about a subject then to throw it away ‘because the last thing the audience want is for you to show off your homework. Acting isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s visceral.’
His portrayal of Rothko was a case in point. He became fascinated by the subject, learned how to prepare convases and even found himself empathising with the artist. ’His life was very well documented. There were loads of photographs of him because for a man who claimed to hate the commercialisation of art, he always posed for photographs. He was very aware of his image. He was, in a sense, always performing. Even his suicide was a sort of performance.’ But the thing Molina wanted to convey most was that Rothko always felt an outsider in New York. He was an immigrant from Russia. ‘His nose was up against the glass.’
Not unlike the young Alfred, or Alfredo as he was growing up the eldest child of immigrants in North West London. He was multilingual, because his father was a waiter from Spain, his mother a cleaner from Italy. His parents met in London while working at the same hotel. ‘My father arrived in England just before the outbreak of war,’ Molina says. ‘And he worked very hard to assimilate. He became a naturalised Britain after serving in the Pioneer Corps. Though both my parents left school at 15 they spoke four languages: English, Italian, Spanish and French. They spoke French when they wanted to be private, so I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I’ve always considered French a romantic and mysterious language for that reason.’
But as hard as they tried to assimilate, his parents always felt like outsiders here. ‘I remember getting into an argument with my father,’ Molina says. ‘I said to him in quite a condescending way: “I was born here. I’m English. I feel English.” And he looked at me and laughed and said: “It doesn’t matter how English you feel, an Englishman will always remind you are not.” He was right. The English have the subtlest ways of reminding you you are not English.’ He adopts an upper class voice. ‘“Alfredo? That’s European isn’t it? How nice.” My father once cooked a meal for the friends of his boss. Traditional paella. And someone said to him: “So do you have this every day in your country? No wonder you chaps are always playing your castanets and looking happy.” Casual racial stereotypes…’ He shakes his head. ‘You know, I based the father in An Education, Lynn Barber’s father, on all the twats my father worked for.’
Alfred Molina dropped the ‘o’ from Alfredo soon after graduating and because he wasn’t ‘lens fodder’, as he puts it, he became a character actor, as oppose to a leading man, and has remained one ever since. ‘My agent told me to change Alfredo to Alfred, otherwise “You’ll be playing Greek waiters all your career.” He didn’t even bother to get my nationality right.’
Blimey. But I suppose this was the 1970s, the heyday, if that’s the right word, of racial stereotyping. I mean, he must have loved Fawlty Towers. ‘Yeah, I remember being called Manuel. That was the last great stereotype.’
But isn’t he now trading in stereotypes himself? He does an American accent very well, which is not surprising given that he has lived in Los Angeles for 12 years and has become a US citizen (because, as he puts it, over there they accept that everyone comes from somewhere else). But in this new movie he plays the English villain, a staple of Hollywood casting. And he has form in this, having played among others Dr Otto Octavius, the half-man, half-octopus villain in Spiderman 2. (That movie, by the way, cost $ 200m and grossed more than that in its first eight days of US release, breaking all records, so Molina knows the world of the blockbuster from both sides.)
So. Hollywood and English villains. What’s that all about? ‘It’s an honourable tradition and long may it continue. It even goes back to the silent era. So that couldn’t have been about the accent. But they were often English in the 50s. And when Alan Rickman went to Hollywood to do Die Hard I did think the standard had been passed on.’
Has he noticed an English backlash lately? ‘With Obama you mean? I haven’t been aware of it. Though I have noticed Americans emphasising the British in BP… Perhaps there is a future role for me as Tony Hayward.’
Well, a villain is a villain, is a villain. Molina might be a bit on the tall side though. And that reminds me of something I wanted to ask him. What’s it like being tall in Hollywood? I mean Tom Cruise is a more typical size for a film star, isn’t he? ‘Well, there’s Clint Eastwood and Tim Robbins and actually there is a younger generation of Hollywood actors who are all big strapping lads. I was doing some work with some students recently and I was average height among them. When I was a kid at school I was always the tallest. When I was 12 I was 5ft 10in, tall enough to be a policeman.’
Big feet? ‘Oh yeah, size 13. And by the time I was 17 I’d reached my height of 6ft 3in.’
How did being tall affect his personality, does he suppose? Did it make him placid? Did it mean he avoided fights because everyone backed off? ‘No, because I was a fat kid and I was physically uncoordinated. I was the kid who bumped into things, so I was a prime target at school. I couldn’t handle myself at all. I got picked on a lot, but now I get my revenge.’
How? ‘Because I live well. All the bullies have now disappeared in to obscurity. So fuck ‘em.’
It is an uncharacteristically aggressive comment for Molina, who seems mild mannered in person, and it makes me wonder whether he was an angry child. ‘Yes I was. Well, frustrated. Because I never stood up to them. I was a coward. It’s almost impossible to stand up to bullies unless you are prepared to be a bully yourself. It must have turned into anger somewhere and the anger must have got directed into acting. I know as an actor I’m good at rage.’
He sure is. His suppressed anger in Prick Up Your Ears was chilling, mainly because it was combined with a savage wit. ‘Yes I always get the feeling that whatever that period in my teenage years produced psychologically, I’m glad I was able to turn it into something positive through acting, so that it didn’t become a festering bitterness. It wasn’t some kind of impotence.’
One of the jibes at school, he now recalls, was that the Italians had been cowardly during the war, and he was half Italian. That stung, because he felt like a coward not standing up to them. He knew very early on that drama was his therapy and salvation. ‘I joined the drama club at 14 and very quickly I found I was living there emotionally.’
Yet he says he was clumsy and self-conscious because of his height; how did he square that with putting himself up on a stage to be stared at? ‘I think it’s why it happened. I was drawn to the idea of escaping by inhabiting other people. It was also a matter of getting the first punch in. If you are prepared to mock yourself first, it deflates the capacity of others to mock you. I knew I could do comedy and make people laugh. And I looked funny.’
In what way? ‘This is my natural nose.’ He points at it with his index finger, his thumb cocked ironically, like a pistol. ‘It’s never been broken. It was this way when I was born. And I knew I was funny and was a good mimic. I had lots of material because my parents were immigrants and they had strong accents. I could imitate them. I had ways of being funny and comic. And I knew what I was doing, I didn’t know quite what, but I knew drama and comedy deflated any bullying. I remember someone saying “You’re mad you are!” and I thought “Yeah but I’m going to make a living from this, from being mad. I knew I was going to turn it in to something worthwhile.’
Did his parents know he was having a hard time with the bullies? ‘I think they must have known because they got divorced when I was 12 and their situation was part of it. It wasn’t their fault but they must have been aware of it.’
I get a sense that he wishes his father had been more protective of him. When I ask whether he was also a big strapping man, Molina shakes his head. ‘My father was also tall, but thin, having had a duodenum ulcer that was cut out — he had a tiny stomach so he couldn’t eat a full meal.’ His mother died at 56 but his father lived to 81, so he saw some of his son’s success. ‘He saw Prick Up Your Ears,’ Molina says. ‘He was a bit confused by that one. I asked him if it was weird seeing me kiss a man on screen and he said: “You do what you have to do.” It was chosen as the opening film of the Barcelona Festival and because Barcelona had a vibrant gay community they came out on mass. Afterwards, at the party, two very camp gentleman from a gay magazine interviewed my father, who was back living in Barcelona at the time. He came over to me later that night and said: “Alfredo, I just been talking to this man and he say to me he think you are fabulous. What does that mean? This word ‘fabulous’?”
The accent is funny. He’s still doing it. Still making people laugh with his range of comedy voices, this time to charm an interviewer rather than a school bully. His other motivations for becoming an actor are intriguing. They are partly frivolous — he says that this way of life beats holding down a real job ‘any day of the week’ and that he would ‘rather be an unemployed actor than an employed anything else’. And they are partly serious. He reckons that people don’t become actors because they have something extra to offer but because they’ve ‘got something missing’. Hmm. And the whole notion of pretending to be someone else, he notes, has a great deal in common with the immigrant experience.
But there is also a materialistic side. He was raised in relative poverty. Now he is thought to earn around three million dollars a movie. What is it like being the star of a Hollywood blockbuster, I ask. How is he treated over there? Is it all stretch limos, sycophancy and chilled champagne? ‘It’s actually not like that, the big stars get treated incredibly well because there is such a huge investment in them, but most of the time on a big movie like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the acting is only a small, eight-week chunk of a two-year project.’
A lot of the energy goes on the marketing strategies these days, he reckons. They are incredibly sophisticated now because there is so much money involved. ‘You have to make it something the adults will enjoy as well as the children. It’s a very interesting formula that Jerry Bruckheimer has developed because there has to be action and adventure in his movies, but also comedy. He really understands how family entertainment works. He also really understands television. I mean look at CSI. That’s a huge worldwide franchise. You get CSI Shanghai. CSI Deli. CSI Bournemouth, probably.’
And in this connection it should perhaps be added that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t all that bad. I took my children to the preview and they loved it: laughed in all the right places; sat on the edges of their seats. But I suppose the problem is that the success of a film such as this is measured purely in revenue terms rather than artistic. ‘Yes,’ Molina says, nodding earnestly. ‘That’s an odd thing with the reviews. The critics are almost superfluous to the result of the film and how it works with the audience. These films are almost critic proof, or at least the critics don’t have the same impact. It is not like an arthouse movie.’
They’re working him hard for this movie, I note. Is it all hands to the pump? ‘It’s all in the contract these days — interviews, international premieres, because there’s so much riding on it. When I started out in this business, the publicity side of things was always discretionary. You’d get a casual call asking if you fancy doing a couple of interviews on Wednesday.’ He grins. ‘But hey, I’m not complaining. This is a great life.’
And acting did mean he got to meet the love of his life. Apart from his wife, the other loves of his life are his daughter Rachel (from an early relationship) and her two young children, his grandchildren. One of them is named Alfred, ‘but he’s Alfie and I’m Fred, to avoid confusion’. Pointedly, he is not Alfredo. That ship has sailed.


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.