His 1986 musical gave the world its darkest hero and broke every box office record going. Now, amid feverish anticipation, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom’ is returning. But is his creator coping with the pressure?

There are two Andrew Lloyd Webbers, separated by a hyphen. There is Lord Lloyd-Webber, the mogul who owns seven London theatres, collects vintage burgundy, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and wives (well, three of them anyway). He is a Tory. A man of refined taste. Establishment to his bones.

And then there is Andrew Lloyd Webber without a hyphen. He was so precocious as a child he could compose almost before he could walk. He won a scholarship to Westminster School and an exhibition to read history at Magdalene College, Oxford, only to drop out after one term in order to pursue his dream of writing musicals.

This must have seemed like an act of rebellion bordering on patricide, given that his father was a professor of classical composition at the Royal College of Music. (And come to think of it, even Lloyd Webber’s Tory tendencies have a rebellious cast to them, given that his domineering mother, a piano teacher, was a socialist.)

Lloyd Webber without a hyphen seems to have been impulsive, driven, contrary and perhaps a little socially awkward and gauche, but a man with keen populist instincts and no qualms about pandering to the sort of middle-brow tastes that might have made his father shudder.

So there’s the paradox, then. Not only is he a nonconformist Establishment figure, he is also a slightly vulgar aesthete. And the two identities are separated by a hyphen that was added in 1997 to avoid confusion when he became Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton. As he might put it, Lloyd ain’t his first name.

In terms of his vocabulary, by the way, he does have a tendency to strain for the colloquial, perhaps in compensation for his received pronunciation – as well as saying ‘ain’t’, he will refer to a ‘beaker’ of wine, or his ‘PR honchos’, or his ‘grey matter’. Anyway, I think it is the Andrew Lloyd Webber without the hyphen that I meet in a rehearsal studio near Waterloo.

At 62, he looks trim and healthy. He is wearing jeans and a pale blue shirt. His hands are small, his grip light and, contrary to reputation, his eye contact steady. His manner is polite but impatient and distracted, and a habit to talk over the top of people gives him the air of a busy man, one who really shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee.

Prior to this meeting I have spent a long morning at his office in Covent Garden listening, under armed guard it seemed, to a recording of the much-anticipated ‘continuation’ – not sequel – of The Phantom of the Opera. Called Love Never Dies, it takes up the phantom’s story 10 years on, when he has left his lair under the Paris Opera in order to haunt the fairgrounds of Coney Island, Brooklyn.

The musical, which begins previewing at the Adelphi Theatre next week, is to my ears more vaudevillian than operatic, with recurring background hints of a fairground barrel organ. But the overall mood seems similar to Phantom, a mixture of soaring ballads and tender love songs.

Predictably enough, ticket sales have been more than healthy. There are a lot of Phantom fans out there, you see. A lot. In terms of revenue, it is the most successful entertainment of all time, way ahead of the combined world tours of the Rolling Stones, even ahead of Star Wars, Titanic and , so far, Avatar. It has taken nearly £2?billion.

Lloyd Webber began planning what would become Love Never Dies back in 1997. Dozens of ideas were chewed over. At one point even Frederick Forsyth and Ben Elton were called in to give it a go, though not together.

The problem was not the music; Lloyd Webber writes quickly. ‘I often think of random melodies,’ he tells me. ‘And I pretty much hear in my head what I want to do with the orchestra as I’m writing on the piano. But the most important thing with musical theatre is the story. That is where you have to start. With the exception of Cats, which is an oddball, it is always the story that is the most important aspect and when they haven’t worked, as with Woman in White, it was because the story wasn’t right.’

His breakthrough came when he worked out the only place the Phantom could hide in 1907 without people staring at his face. ‘The answer was Coney Island, where freaks can walk around without being noticed. Freud gave the best quote about the place: ‘The only reason to go to the United States is to go to Coney Island.’ So this made the story about vaudeville instead of opera.

Like the original Phantom, Love Never Dies reflects Lloyd Webber’s highly romantic sensibility. ‘This one has taken romance as far as it will go,’ he says. ‘This felt like coming back to my own turf. When it was finally unlocked for me after 20 years of attempts I felt I was coming back to a character I knew well.

‘If you looked at the logic of the original, the whole thing falls apart. I remember Hal Prince saying we have to start one scene before the last has ended and let the music overlap – and then just go for it. We don’t need to explain all this because the audience will get it. The story of the Phantom is one of rock masquerading as opera. The passions in Love Never Dies are rock passions.’

To what does Lloyd Webber attribute the enduring appeal of Phantom? ‘It’s to do with sexuality and, well, I remember 20 years ago going to a charity event Elton was giving in a restaurant and I found myself, to my great joy, sitting among five of the world’s most beautiful supermodels and they were all talking about Phantom because it had just opened.

‘I think it was Elle Macpherson who said: “If you ask X she is worried about her nose and if you ask Y she is worried she isn’t tall enough and Z thinks she is too skinny. We are all of us insecure about our looks.” And I think that’s it. That is why people identify with the Phantom. Everyone has something about themselves they would like to change.’

To say there is anticipation for the new show is to understate. Is he nervous that Love Never Dies might not live up to expectation? ‘There is pressure. I can’t tell you whether Love Never Dies is of its time, because it ain’t Legally Blonde or Hairspray. All I can say is that I think the story is strong and the lyrics are the best I’ve had since Tim, if you take TS Eliot out of the equation.’

His musical Cats, it should be explained, the one that was a fixture in the West End for 21 years, was based on words by TS Eliot. And the Tim he refers to is Sir Tim Rice.

Rice was the reason the 17-year-old Lloyd Webber dropped out of Oxford. It was a life-changing encounter. Sir Tim was five years older, taller, longer haired, more urbane and socially confident. He also had an ability to write wry and catchy lyrics that electrified the young Andrew.

When these were combined with Lloyd Webber’s instantly memorable and charming melodies, a chemical combustion took place. The obvious comparison of a librettist meeting his perfect composer is when Gilbert met Sullivan, but a better one might be Bernie Taupin and Elton John.

Either way, Rice and Lloyd Webber clicked and within a few years they had produced three of the most successful musicals of all time: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Then, at the height of their creative powers, they fell out.

As Lloyd Webber is the richest person in the British music industry, ahead even of Sir Paul McCartney, it is safe to assume he is not just doing Love Never Dies for the money. He can’t still be hungry can he? I mean, if he still needs the sense of affirmation that comes with success, after all these years of it, isn’t that a form of failure?

‘Why am I still hungry? I think it is just that I love the collaborative element. You depend on each other in a project like this. It is a shared adventure between the cast, director, designer, costume maker, lighting engineer, choreographer. One ingredient could be wrong and a great piece of work will disappear.’

The comment is a reminder that, for all his success, Lloyd Webber has known failure. In fact, he hasn’t had a new hit for a while, and by his standards Woman in White, The Beautiful Game and Whistle Down the Wind constitute flops.

Could it be that his recent brush with mortality, last autumn he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, has focused his mind? To paraphrase a certain mid-market tabloid, Love never dies – but he nearly did.

‘Yes and I did nearly die when I saw that headline because the point about my illness was that I didn’t nearly die, because we caught it in time. I kept having to get up to pee in the night and so I went to have a checkup and, luckily, they spotted it. Men over 50 should really have a prostate check regularly. It is the most common form of cancer in men and if you can get it before it angles off into other parts of the body, it’s not a problem.’

He had a prostatectomy in November and looks very healthy now. ‘Yes,’ he says with a grin. ‘I am. In the circumstances.’ He has an endearingly self-deprecating anecdote to share about the time he was told to leave The London Clinic by a side door via a row of huge dustbins, in order to avoid a gang of paparazzi that had assembled outside the hospital’s front door.

He assumed they were for him but next morning awoke to vast coverage of Amy Winehouse leaving the same place having had, allegedly, a breast enhancement.

He speaks about how he accepts the operation may leave you with an incontinence problem, but that this gets better every day. It can also leave you impotent, but not necessarily. As for the infertility, he is not worried about that because he has five children.

It must have given him intimations of mortality though. ‘Yes, it makes you think.’ What is it all for? That sort of thing? ‘No, more that it makes you realise who your real friends are. I was struck by the number of people who were my friends a long time ago who were the most supportive. Tim, for example. He rang my wife every day. And my first wife Sarah came to see me and she happened to arrive on the same day as Tim and they were getting on like a house on fire, catching up and talking about old times.’

He grins again. ‘There they were talking away by the bed and I might as well not have been there! And then the phone went and it was Sarah Brightman and I thought this is not great timing so I said: “This is a little awkward Sarah, can I call you back?” It made me laugh.’ Sarah Brightman was known as Sarah Two.

Was he surprised to find himself on his third marriage by the time he reached his mid forties? ‘Well I’ve been married 20 years this time, quite a stretch. I’m very pleased that I am still very close to both my ex wives. Both of them have stayed at my place in Majorca this past year. At different times.’

I have to say, I am impressed by the way he has remained friendly with his exes be they in business or marriage. ‘Yes, Tim is such a good friend and Sarah was wonderful when I was ill. She heard the roughs for Love Never Dies before it was mixed in LA last summer and I was quite worried about playing it to her because, in a way, it would mean more to her than to me.’

His marriage to Brightman lasted six years and was played out in the spotlight, including the acrimony of the divorce. Was it a passionate affair to begin with? ‘I think with her it was more about the music.’

He makes himself a coffee and is adept at operating the complicated looking machine. I’m surprised given that he probably has butlers to do that at home.

‘We don’t have butlers. Obviously we have people who look after the houses, but I try not to run things formally. I have good people around me. My PA, my driver, but my best investment is my black cab which means you can go anywhere.’

When he says his cancer made him think, was that partly about the meaning of material possessions?

‘I don’t think I am that materialistic, actually. Obviously at home in the country the art collection is important but we have one big room in the middle of the house where we do everything, the television, the kitchen, everything. I like cooking so I always like to have the kitchen in the central place. Music, architecture and pictures have always been my passions, and all that material wealth has meant for me, is being able to have some of the pictures I liked.’

I try and get a measure of what he was like as a schoolboy. Was he serious? ‘I was a bit. I was passionate about architecture and so was considered an oddball. I could have been academic but I got bored. I think I was quite popular at prep school because they thought I was weird playing the violin, and then one day I got up and did a parody of the masters, six tunes, and after that they thought I had a sense of humour.’

Were his parents pushy? ‘I think my mother would have preferred it if I was more interested in history, but I wanted to plough my own furrow. My parents were supportive about me leaving Oxford, even though the family didn’t have any money. We didn’t have anything to fall back on. We have that now with our 18 year-old, who I have a feeling isn’t going to go down the university route. He’s got all his grades, but he’s been doing work experience and enjoying that. I’ll support him if I think he’s going to the right place.’

When Lloyd Webber was that age, the right place meant being alongside Tim Rice. ‘Yes once I met Tim I realised how few really good lyricists there were. I was aware of a chemistry between us but also an awareness that there was no one else around who had the sort of individuality he had. The turn of phrase he had was so quirky and individual. I had met no one who had come even remotely close to him.’

He talks about Sir Tim a lot. You get the feeling it was, in some ways, his most painful divorce. Was part of the problem that Tim’s heart wasn’t in music theatre? That he finds it a little, well, embarrassing? Wasn’t he always more interested in rock and pop?

‘I think that is true, though goodness knows, he’s made enough records. He’s sometimes deliberately provocative about these things, that’s all. Saying he hates musicals. But I think deep down he cares much more about his work that he would ever say.

‘We’ve written a few songs together since Evita and we almost have an album’s worth. And always with Tim there will be a couple of lines in a song that no other lyricist could have come up with. There’s one we’ve worked on called Dance the Dance and it has the line: “She was on the ball and he was so last season”. Wonderful.’

Lloyd Webber had even been hoping that Sir Tim would come on board to write the lyrics for Love Never Dies. He was quoted as saying: ‘I have implied it and he knows perfectly well to phone me.’

Clearly there is still a strong bond between them, so what went wrong? ‘Where Tim and I really had a parting of the ways was over Chess. I think I put it the wrong way to Tim when I said I thought the plot wasn’t theatrical. I said what it needs is a theatre craftsman to give it some John le Carré-type suspense. And for once we got out of step and then next I heard he was doing it with [Abba’s] Benny and Bjorn.’

It sounds like his feelings were hurt. ‘I was a bit hurt, yes, because I felt I could have done something with it. As it turned out, the songs from Chess are right up there with some of the very best ever written for musical theatre. If you audition in New York you will always hear four songs from Chess. But still, for me, there was a fundamental problem with the script. It never worked in the theatre, for me.’

Having been such a successful double act was he nervous about going it alone? ‘Well I had an immediate disaster without Tim, which was when I did Jeeves with Alan Ayckbourn. But then I did a big hit album on my own with Variations and that was a turning point.’

For his part, Sir Tim went on to have a huge hit with The Lion King, made by Lloyd Webber’s only real rival in music theatre, Disney. Ouch.

It occurs to me that, in some way, Sir Tim, who supposedly finds musicals a bit embarrassing, might have been something of a father figure to Lloyd Webber.

I ask Lloyd Webber – who has been quoted as saying that he was never that close to his father – whether he ever got a sense that his actual father considered musicals to be, well, not one of the higher art forms.

‘Not at all. I remember him bringing home a single by the Shadows and saying they are probably the finest quartet working in Britain at the moment. My father got every scholarship going and followed an academic side, but I know deep down inside that he would have preferred to go into film music. His make up was such that he wouldn’t have been able to cope with the problems that crop up constantly in the music theatre or film music world. Also, I think he would have thought he was letting the family down.’ Because? ‘My grandfather belittled it.’

For the record, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rare forays into classical music was his Requiem in 1986. It is beautiful and haunting and deserved the Grammy it won. It was composed in memory of his father, William Lloyd Webber, without a hyphen.


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.