Amanda Ross, the brains behind the Richard & Judy Book Club, has turned at least 10 authors into millionaires. So why does she attract such sniffiness? Nigel Farndale finds out

Before I meet the most powerful woman in British publishing, I meet her dogs, two Tibetan terriers. They skitter in, narrowly missing a stack of books that teeters on her office floor. As I crouch down to stroke their heads I become distracted by the names juxtaposed on the book spines – they include Billie Piper and Bill Clinton; Julian Barnes and Griff Rhys Jones. It takes a pair of high-heeled, knee-length leather boots in my peripheral vision to undistract me. ‘People always like to check on what I’m reading,’ Amanda Ross says airily.

Of course they do.

Her unofficial title stuck after a publishing ‘power list’ came out last year. It is slightly misleading because a) she is the most powerful ‘person’ in publishing, there being men on the list as well, and b) she is not actually in publishing. She runs Cactus TV with her husband, Simon Ross (brother of Jonathan), and together they produce Richard & Judy, the daytime chat show which, through its insanely popular Book Club, more or less dictates what is in the bestseller lists.

The Book Club was Ross’s idea – inspired by the Oprah Winfrey show – and she is the one who selects the titles featured on it. It works like this: Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan (along with a rotation of celebrities) read and discuss the books that she has shortlisted over the same eight-week period that their viewers are reading and discussing them. Sales of the shortlisted books are known to increase by as much as 3,000 per cent the day after they are featured. The winner of last year’s Best Read Award, Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, holds the number one spot in the 2006 overall sales league table; at number two is Victoria Hislop’s The Island, which was the viewer’s favourite in last year’s Summer Read. Since it started in 2004, in fact, the Book Club has been responsible for the sale of more than 10 million books and has generated more than £60 million for publishers. What this means in practice is that the sales of one in four books sold in this country are now based on Amanda Ross’s recommendations. It also means that, almost single-handedly, she has turned at least 10 authors into millionaires.

Publishers, I suggest, must be sucking up to her like crazyweed. ‘Well the thing is they don’t suck up. They don’t. Partly, I think, because I’m so busy doing a daily live show I don’t have time to have lunch. Anyway, right from the start I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be bribed.’ She laughs. ‘But I do keep dropping hints that I wouldn’t mind a backlist or two for our library in Italy.’ She refers to her second home, a restoration project on the border of Umbria and Tuscany. Her first is just off Clapham Common, a short drive from her studio, a converted polystyrene factory in Kennington.

Amanda Ross is 44 years old and 5ft 5in tall. She has blonde highlighted hair tumbling over her shoulders and an easy laugh. Though she studied drama at Birmingham University, she has no literary pretensions and is keen to point out that, having grown up in a bookless council flat in Pitsea, Essex, her roots are working-class.

To what does she owe the confidence she clearly has in her own taste? ‘It’s not confidence at all. I’m not a very confident person. Making these selections scares me stiff. I do take it personally when I’m criticised, because the book industry is not my industry. It’s like, hey, you know, I’m trying to help here. I don’t make any money out of this. That’s the bizarre thing. The most successful thing in my career, which this is, I don’t make any money from.’

Criticism? Well, according to Madeley: ‘The Book Club has nailed the lie that daytime TV is for “dimwits” and “bored housewives”. We demonstrated that our viewers are intelligent people who relish the opportunity to read and discuss books.’ Certainly, the brow line of the book choices falls between high and middle. Even so, there is still some sniffiness in literary circles. There are those who grumble, off the record, that the prominence given in shops to the Book Club choices means that there is no space left for any other new books.

The arts commentator Mark Lawson, meanwhile, has argued that word-of-Richard-and-Judy has replaced word-of-mouth. Monica Ali snubbed the awards when she was shortlisted. And the novelist Giles Foden made a brave – or foolish – stand in the Guardian recently when he wrote: ‘Personally, I’d rather not listen to the twitterings of a pair of permatanned nincompoops on literary matters.’ What had irked him was a comment Amanda Ross had made about the word ‘literary’. She was quoted as saying she hated it. She also admitted that she had never read anything by Martin Amis, the big beast of the literary world.

‘I got knocked for saying I hate the word “literary”,’ she now says, a touch defensively. ‘What I meant was I don’t like books being put into a box or category if that scares away readers. I was criticised when we started the Book Club because my choices were considered too difficult for a daytime audience, yet one of our winners was Cloud Atlas, which was also shortlisted for the Booker. A lot of our viewers enjoyed that and then afterwards, when they heard it was Literature with a capital L, they were pleased because they had seen past the label. Julian Barnes – he’s another literary author we’ve shortlisted. If we had sold that as a literary work it would have put people off because, for some, literary means difficult or inaccessible.’

Does she read book reviews? ‘No, never. I read The Bookseller and Publishing News, that’s it. I don’t have any real literary knowledge.’

Has she felt under pressure to fill in those gaps? ‘No, because I never pretended that I am particularly well-read. I read a lot, but who knows what is the right thing to read? What I will say is that because of my background in popular television I can look at something and visualise it. I can say: “I think that will have universal appeal.” If any smart-arse critics want to trip me up on my lack of knowledge about literature it would be really easy for them. But I’ll never lie that I’ve read something if I haven’t. Now I’m stuck in a horrible trap, because with the selection process all I’m reading is brand-new fiction: 1,400 books a year are submitted so I don’t have a chance to catch up on other reading beyond that.’

She doesn’t read them all, she explains. She is helped by three assistants, who change each year, and they tend to read a couple of chapters and a synopsis. Only when they are down to a longlist of 50 do they read cover to cover. The final 10 is all a question of size. The list goes thick, thin, thick, thin.

Is Ross a quick reader? ‘No, unfortunately – it’s really frustrating. My husband is a really quick reader. It annoys me because we’ll be sitting together on a plane and he’ll have done 30 pages to my three.’

So what bones can she throw authors in terms of helping them get on her lists? ‘Well a book has to be vivid. Some books can be beautifully written but not a lot happens. They need strong themes and plots. In the end I’m picking something which has to sustain 12 minutes of television discussion. That’s a helluva long time in TV terms.’

So something like Ulysses wouldn’t work? ‘Well you’d have to be able to say what its central themes are and is it going to stimulate an argument? That’s the other thing. Because we are in our fourth year it has to be a discussion we haven’t had before. After Labyrinth was so successful I was submitted a lot of books saying: “This is your next Labyrinth.” Well I don’t want that. There tend to be patterns in publishing. This year there were a lot of African-themed books around so I felt we should choose one of those and so I chose Chimamanda – I can’t say her surname, can you?’ I have a stab: Ngozi? She laughs. ‘I was taught it was “amanda” with “Chim” in front. Anyway, now we are getting lots more African-themed books and we feel we’ve done that.’

The Book Club selection she was most excited about was The Time Traveler’s Wife. ‘I read it on holiday in Italy and I could see now exactly where I was when I read it and I was crying from half way through. I gave it to my husband and he loved it too. Only on holiday do I get a chance to read a book all the way through.’ Publishers, she adds, are always bullying her PA to tell them when she is going on holiday.

Tuh. Publishers. Nearly as bad as authors. When I joke about unsigned books in bookshops being more valuable than signed ones – because they are sale-or-return for the bookshop – she says: ‘Is that why they say a signed book is a sold book? I hadn’t realised that.’ It is a curious thing not to know, a measure of her detachment from the cut-throat publishing world. I ask if she knows many authors. ‘A few. Mostly the ones I’ve picked. And publishers do try and get me to meet authors I might pick, but I think that’s dangerous because if you really like them and then don’t like their book it is awkward. I sat next to William Boyd at the Costas [book awards] after I had picked him and his book was due on the show the next day. I came home and said to my husband: “I’m not going to sleep now because if the panel doesn’t like the book I’m going to be mortified because he is so nice.” ‘ It is a guileless comment. An endearing one, too. ‘Unlike Oprah, we consciously never have the author in the studio, so that we can be honest,’ she adds. ‘You don’t want it to be a puff piece.’

How would she describe her taste? ‘Eclectic.’ Another laugh.

Can she be more specific? ‘There are some I like more than others. I do have favourites in the present list, such as The Girls.’ She plucks a copy of it off her shelves and, as she reads its first page to me, I am struck by her obvious passion for books. She handles them as if they are sacred objects. ‘There are other things which determine taste,’ she says. ‘On the Tube at the moment people are reading This Book Will Save Your Life partly because it’s got a funky, urban cover.’

So she thinks people on the Underground worry about what their choice of book says about them? ‘Exactly. That is why covers are important. Cecelia Ahern’s PS, I Love You was submitted with a bright pink cover and I told HarperCollins that Richard can’t sit there with a bright pink cover. My husband wouldn’t want to either, even though he’s very comfortable with his manhood. No man is going to want to. When you go on holiday you swap books with your partner.’ The cover was changed to blue. It went on to sell a million copies.

I ask about the notorious Richard & Judy Book Club sticker, the one that seems to be spot-welded on. ‘I’m sure there are many people who buy the books and the first thing they do is peel the sticker off,’ she says with a grin.

Because they don’t want strangers to presume that the sticker is the reason they bought it? ‘Maybe, yes. But I do think the stickers make a big difference because I have a lot of feedback from people saying we never watch the show but we have always found when we have read a book with the sticker on that it is an enjoyable read.’

Ross now lets me into a secret which publishers would do well to take note of: ‘My husband is the ultimate arbiter, because I get him to read anything I’m not sure of.’

They married 16 years ago after meeting at Tyne Tees television. ‘We were paired up together as researchers and I laughed so much because Simon is very funny. He made me laugh so much the first week we worked together that my side hurt. I actually had shingles and didn’t realise.’

I ask what Ross family gatherings are like. ‘Loud.’

Jonathan dominates? ‘Actually no, because in the family dynamic he has two older brothers, Paul and Simon, and all three of them are really quick. They shared a bedroom when they were growing up. Five boys. So they had to get along for survival. There are 17 kids in the family – we are the only ones without – so yes, family gatherings are loud.’

Despite IVF treatment, the couple have not been able to have children, something Ross has found hard to come to terms with. ‘I don’t think I could have had the same career if we had had children, though. I don’t think I could have had the same relationship with Simon. We work the hours we do because we don’t have to get back for children.’

Her own childhood was not happy. When Amanda was 11, her father, who worked in an oil refinery, left her mother. ‘I don’t see my father. Haven’t seen him for years. I was brought up by my mother and stepfather. My mother taught me to read before I went to school. I could read when I was three. My mum joined a book club for me and I would read under covers after dark with a torch.’

Escapism? ‘Yes. I’m sure it was. I didn’t fit in at school. I don’t have a posh accent or anything – you can properly still hear where I come from – but my mother taught me to speak properly, for Essex. I was bullied because I didn’t sound like everyone else and because I was very short for my age – I shot up five inches in a year when I was 15 – I was a natural victim. I would join all the clubs because I didn’t have a very nice home life.’

What sort of bullying? ‘It was really bad. Everything from stealing my books to forcing me to have fights with people. Locking me in the toilet. Burning me with cigarettes. I had to change schools, which gave me a chance to change attitudes. My attitude after that was “Don’t pick on me.” It worked.’

She gives me a tour of the TV studio. I meet Simon Ross in the production gallery and, on the studio floor, stand a few feet away from Richard and Judy as they are broadcasting live. They really do have permatans. When we return to her office I study the shelves a little closer and see, between the mugs, framed photographs of Amanda Ross with Tony Blair; Amanda Ross with George Michael. She is smiling in both. She does seem open, friendly and unaffected, but she is not her usual carefree self today, she says. ‘I haven’t been sleeping well.’

Because she has been under siege? ‘Because I have been under siege.’

We are talking about what the tabloids call the ‘TV Quiz Phone Scam’. It started with Channel 4’s daily premium-rate phone-in quiz You Say We Pay – part of Richard & Judy – and ended with ITV suspending all its phone-in quiz shows, pending an investigation. The rot even appears to have spread to the BBC’s Blue Peter. In the case of Richard & Judy it is said they urged callers to continue entering the quiz even after the winners had been picked. I ask whether it was cock-up or conspiracy. ‘Cock-up. We are confident that when the report comes out Cactus will be exonerated.’

Because? ‘Because Simon and I had no way of knowing it was going on. We were getting the information the same times as the winners. We didn’t know the telephone company had the results earlier than us.’ She sighs. ‘I can’t comment on the details while we are under investigation, but I think the phone company has a lot to worry about because they are behind all those ITV shows that have been suspended.’

So she made no money from it? ‘The reason this has really got to me is that I am scrupulously fair. If we were doing it deliberately, as a scam, we would have found a way to make money. But we weren’t and we haven’t. It’s hurtful. There was some idiot writing in a literary column saying if she could cheat on You Say We Pay perhaps we should examine how the books are chosen for the Book Club and I thought: oh f— off! Really! I work so bloody hard choosing these books objectively and get no financial reward. OK, don’t have books on the telly. I don’t care. I’ll move on to something else. It’s galling. You’re probably seeing me at my most depressed and down because, at the moment, I am feeling “what’s the point?” ‘

Well, if I may, the point is that Amanda Ross has created a revolution in the nation’s reading habits, democratising the world of books so that readers with non-literary backgrounds can enjoy literature without feeling intimidated. Also, in expanding the total market for books, she has done something miraculous for British bookselling. Publishers everywhere must be hoping she doesn’t move on to something else.


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.