Armando Iannucci – co-creator of The Day Today, Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, and now In The Loop – is an erudite classical music aficionado who raised the bar for swearing on the BBC. Yet no one (except Alastair Campbell) has a bad word to say about him


It is five minutes past nine in the morning, though you wouldn’t know it from the clocks in the Iannucci household. The one in the kitchen is ten minutes fast, in order to fool the children into not being late for school. The one in the study is an hour slow, or rather it has stopped, the time frozen until someone changes the battery. It seems an uncharacteristically nonchalant oversight.

Armando Iannucci – a busy, busy man – lives in a small village in Buckinghamshire with his wife, three children and two dogs. He has an office at the BBC – where he is a prolific producer of comedies – but it is here that he does his writing. The study is a wooden shed and, to reach it, you pass a trampoline in the garden. He overheard his middle child swear while playing on it a few months ago with a couple of friends – ‘This is f—ing great!’ Iannucci had to poke his head around the shed door and give it a stern shake, followed by a frown.

This may sound hypocritical given that, as the writer and director of the political satire The Thick of It, Iannucci is directly responsible for 93 per cent of the entire BBC output of the ‘f-word’. But he insists that the swearing in that comedy is not gratuitous. He wanted it to have a ‘realistic, documentary feel’ and all his research, talking to new Labour insiders, reading published diaries, revealed that this is how people in politics talk these days. ‘Besides, it’s not like anything else I write has swearing. There’s none in I’m Alan Partridge.’

And besides (again), the swearing in The Thick of It is funny, especially when Malcolm Tucker, the very angry and very Scottish spin-doctor based on Alastair Campbell and played by Peter Capaldi, does it. His most memorable line is: ‘Come the f— in or f— the f— off.’

Nevertheless, Iannucci found the experience of watching The Thick of It with his son Emilio, then 13, a little strange. ‘He laughed and then stopped because he thought he might be laughing at something I would disapprove of. It was slightly uncomfortable and confusing for both of us. He kept looking across at me to see whether I disapproved, sort of forgetting I had written it.

And I was feeling embarrassed about the language. We’d flipped roles.’

Alongside Peter Cook and John Cleese, Iannucci has been one of the most influential and innovative figures in British television comedy, first making his mark in 1991 when he assembled the team – including Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and Rebecca Front – that made the news spoof On The Hour on Radio 4. When it was transferred to television as The Day Today it became an electrifying and withering parody of television news. (‘Those were the headlines. Happy now?’)

It was also surreal. Chris Morris, who seemed more like Jeremy Paxman than Jeremy Paxman, would speak in headlines: ‘On The Hour and I am Christopher Morris – for it is I. Tonight’s sizey stories: Nineteen in fogbound bakery collision; Dinosaurs died out on a Tuesday claim experts; And where now for 107 of Ridley’s children?’

Iannucci, this giant of comedy, is not a tall man. At 44 he is wiry, balding and in possession of a fine set of dark and animated eyebrows. In repose he has an earnest expression which every so often, when you least expect it, is transformed by a toothy smile. He once described himself as a ‘big-nosed Jock wop’ – his father having been an Italian immigrant who came to live in Glasgow where he set up a pizza company. Though he is easy company and unspools articulate sentences in a mild and measured Glaswegian caw, Iannucci does have a tendency to say ‘yeahyeahyeah’ impatiently, when acknowledging a point.

His study-cum-shed reflects his three passions beyond comedy – classical music, the romantic poets and politics. The CD boxes on the shelves behind his desk all have the names of composers on their spines. (Somehow he has found the time to co-compose an operetta, which was recently performed by Opera North.)

The books on other shelves include some on Milton, who lived in a cottage 100 yards from here. (Iannucci is working on a documentary for BBC Two about Paradise Lost, which was also the subject of a PhD he began at Oxford but did not finish.) There is also a doll of George W. Bush on the shelves, one that spouts Bushisms when its string is pulled. Iannucci was given it by his wife [a former NHS therapist whom he met at university] while he was researching In the Loop, a film version of The Thick of It, partly set in Washington.

Simon Foster, a mild-mannered British minister played by Tom Hollander, inadvertently backs a war on prime-time television, bringing down on his head the wrath of Malcolm Tucker. Like all Iannucci’s Labour politicians, Foster is self-pitying, dissembling and vacillating, but not unsympathetic. In Washington, where a US General (James Gandolfini from The Sopranos) is trying to prevent the war, he rapidly finds himself out of his depth.

A crucial vote is pending at the UN Security Council. A dodgy dossier appears. Everyone stabs everyone else in the back…

When I ask if Iannucci’s observations about office politics are based on his experiences of working for the BBC, he shakes his head. ‘Actually they are based on my experience of the studio system in LA. You go there with high expectation and you think everyone sounds impressive but you soon realise that they don’t really know what they are doing either, you’re all bluffing but being paid vast sums to bluff.’

The film had its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Festival and, such was the critical acclaim with which it was greeted, it was soon signed up for US-wide distribution, thus exposing Iannucci to the full glare of Hollywood ingratiation. But all that means in practice, he reckons, is that you get a lot of fruit baskets delivered to your hotel room.

Another thing he based his observations on is the way people in television are impressed by those who can make decisions quickly. ‘Unimportant decisions like which of five suitcases to use as a prop, and I think a lot of that must go on higher up. The busier you are the less time you have to make decisions. A minister will get a five-minute brief in the back of a car and then he will have to come up with a policy.’

The big question is whether The Thick of It, which began as six half-hour episodes and two specials from 2005 to 2007, will translate into a full hour-and-a-half feature film. In my opinion it does, hilariously. The cameras still skitter restlessly from character to character. And visually, it still has a news-as-it-is-happening feel, where actors are often only half in the frame or partly obscured while reciting a line of dialogue. But it has more variety of pace than the television version – more non-verbal cues, little looks, sighs – and that is as it should be.

But Alastair Campbell, who has also seen a preview, has dismissed the film as ‘unrealistic and unfunny’. He was, he said, ‘too bored to be offended,’ adding that he despairs of Iannucci’s cynicism, and wonders whether the satirist really thinks all politics is basically crass, all politicians venal. Campbell twists the knife by suggesting that Iannucci ‘like Rory Bremner’, is becoming less funny the more serious his subject matter gets.

Ouch. But he would say that, wouldn’t he. And anyway, Iannucci doesn’t think he is being cynical. ‘We try to show the politicians not as evil, but as morally tortured and compromised. I find that more interesting than goodies and baddies. The audience wonders whether they would do the same. I suppose delusion is better than cynicism.

‘Clare Short really believed she was doing the right thing in the run up to the Iraq war and managed to convince herself that it was better not to resign. There is a scene in the film in which the minister does something similar, trying to convince himself that war can sometimes be a good thing. What about the Crimean War? We got nurses out of the Crimean War.’

And, to be fair, Iannucci always does his homework. He established via research trips to the Pentagon and the CIA’s HQ in Virginia, for example, that a lot of Washington is run by ‘very intelligent but fairly un-streetwise 23-year-olds with degrees in Terrorism Strategy Studies’.

Though he is fascinated by politics, he doesn’t think he is a political animal as such. ‘I hate the idea of labels and saying you are member of one party or another and signing up to all sorts of policies that you don’t have a view on or don’t believe in. Because I’m not a politician I don’t have to be consistent in what I say and how I behave.’

The media, I point out, is always accused of undermining the political process, but surely comedies such as his are much worse offenders, undermining and ridiculing in a much more ruthless and efficient way. ‘Yeahyeahyeah, I know.

I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Hazel Blears said a few months ago that The Thick of It put people off politics and why can’t we make the West Wing? Show our British politicians being noble? But I think people would laugh at that for the wrong reason, because they wouldn’t believe it. It’s to do with our natural default position of disbelief and cynicism.’

Though The Thick of It was a critical hit, plans for a second series were derailed when the deadpan actor at its centre, Chris Langham, was arrested and charged with possession of indecent photographs of children. ‘My instant reaction was to think about Chris and how I could be supportive,’ Iannucci says now. ‘Not, oh, what will this mean for the project? It was more puzzlement than frustration. I didn’t want to do any more of the series until we knew the outcome of his trial.

‘We were able to do a couple of one-off specials which didn’t write Chris’s character out of the script but said he was in Australia.’ The two met up just before Christmas and would like to work together again, but not on The Thick of It. The BBC won’t even show repeats of the first series. Both accept that Langham’s rehabilitation will be a long, slow process.

When I ring round a few of Iannucci’s friends and colleagues, several mention his loyalty. Rebecca Front, who has known him since Oxford, says she has never seen him lose his temper. ‘If he ever gets frustrated he hides it – he doesn’t like conflict. He’s easy going but he will let you know when he doesn’t like something you’ve written, and he’ll do it in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling offended, which is a great skill. There is an “Armando Way”, an “Armando House Style”, and he tends to work with people he feels can deliver it. He tends to lose interest rather than lose his temper.

‘We had him and his family around for lunch the other day with some other friends of ours and they remarked afterwards about how low key he was. I think they had expected this full-on King of Satire to walk in.’

The playwright Patrick Marber was also one of the Day Today team. ‘I feel I owe my whole career to him because he saw things in me which I couldn’t see in myself,’ he says. ‘I think he’s like a good football manager, a Cloughie figure. Not a great praiser but he wouldn’t diminish you either.’

Iannucci is a fastidious man who worries about his diet: he won’t eat carbs at lunch, as he is convinced that they sap his energy levels. He admits to a certain physical awkwardness, saying that he finds kicking a ball and trying to look cool impossible, but reckons that he has become much more comfortable in his skin since turning 40 – he had always felt that was his natural age.

‘Armando always looked and behaved as if he couldn’t wait to turn 40,’ confirms Chris Morris, who then does an uncanny impression of his friend for me. Back in 1990, he says, Iannucci approached him and the two drove round and round in a car talking through their ideas for a new and experimental type of comedy.

‘What we both liked was the idea of delivering absurdity in an authoritative voice. Making the ridiculous appear sensible. Sometimes Armando would be downcast when he felt things on The Day Today were too floppily formed and needed tightening, but he was always able to make subtle-minded decisions that were, in the best sense of the word, cool.’

Iannucci doesn’t know whether this is a product of being not quite Italian and not quite Scottish, but he has always felt slightly detached from whatever community he is in. ‘Without being weird,’ he adds, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m a sick loner.’ Though he was a studious child who immersed himself in the world of books and classical music, he got the comedy bug at an early age. ‘I started quite young at school,’ he says, ‘compeering a charity event at an old people’s home. I would do stand up and impressions and enjoyed the laughter. It’s very addictive. It’s a lovely sensation to say something and hear a whole room laugh.’

Though he likes to leave comic acting to ‘proper comic actors’, he does perform himself from time to time, fronting some of the shows with which his name is associated, such as The Friday Night Armistice, or The Charm Offensive on Radio 4. ‘I was aware when we were doing The Day Today that if it was successful the public would home in on the cast rather than the creators,’ he says now, ‘and I did agonise a little with Chris over whether I should be in it. But then I realised I simply wouldn’t have been good enough compared to him or Rebecca or Steve.’

He knew he had found a gem in Alan Partridge on the first day working on The Day Today. ‘As soon as Steve did that voice we knew this Partridge would fly. It was very much Alan in the room, not Steve. Steve doesn’t write at a laptop, he paces up and down. So it was me and Peter Baynham taking turns on the computer, writing ideas down while Steve stayed in character. The trouble was he would keep it up all day. He would be Alan all day.’

That must have been a laugh, I say. ‘You’d think so but after eight months of it I just wanted to kill him. I remember thinking “I’ve been in a room with f—ing Alan Partridge for eight months. Won’t someone just shoot him.”’

When he and Baynham (who co-wrote Borat) get together with Coogan they often find themselves wondering what Partridge would be up to now. ‘I think Alan is desperate to get on one of these has-been celebrity reality shows,’ Iannucci says. ‘I think he’s feeling bitter about being so low status he hasn’t been asked on one. I think he is cornering the producers to get on living TV or Bravo.’ He claps his hands. ‘Ghost Hunt! That’s what Alan would like to be in at the moment.’

Steve Coogan has a reputation as a party animal – the drink, the drugs, the womanising – whereas Iannucci is, by his own admission, more a cardigan and comfortable shoes type. ‘I would never give Steve advice about his lifestyle. It is so alien to me. He knows that and I know that there is nothing in my life I could compare his situation to. We have a great relationship that tends to be very much about work. But I think recently his experiences have… well, he has turned a corner, as he puts it. Put it like this, I don’t counsel him, nor do I think he would accept counselling.’

When I ring Coogan, who is on tour in Australia at the moment, he describes Iannucci as a private person, not overly demonstrative or theatrical. ‘He’s not given to grand gesticulations and is economical with his emotions,’ he says. ‘But I think what we have in common is that we both like to expose the underbelly of things and prick pomposity.

Coogan says he always felt protected by Iannucci, who acted as a ‘buffer’ between him and the bureaucrats at the BBC. ‘He is the senior party, he’s like the sensible older brother,’ says Coogan. ‘Our relationship has never been about who is the funniest. I was more instinctive, he was more intellectual. My creativity was directionless so he could always rein me in and give me a focus.’

Coogan says the Day Today team knew right from the moment Iannucci gathered them all together in a studio that what they were doing was cutting edge and uncompromising. ‘He sort of unleashed us. In a way it was anti-comedy, not chasing the laughs, not doing comedy to win the approval of the audience. There was an attractive coldness to it. I think Armando’s taste has evolved since then. There is a painful vulnerability to his characters that wasn’t there before.’

Though his work can be politically attuned and socially topical, it can be whimsical and absurd, too. In his brilliant 2006 television series Time Trumpet, a nostalgic ‘list show’ set 30 years in the future, Charlotte Church vomits herself inside out while exploring the outer limits of binge-drinking, Tony Blair pays television cameramen to expose themselves while filming Gordon Brown, thus causing him to lose the thread of his argument, and Tesco mounts an invasion of Denmark.

Comedian David Baddiel first met Iannucci on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1989. ‘Armando has never given up on the idea that comedy, as well as being silly and making you laugh, should also be an intellectual pursuit at some level,’ he says. ‘His linguistic humour was apparent, he was always coming up with new words that seemed somehow right, like “mentalist”. I love the way he uses the

f-word in The Thick of It. There is a real poetry to it. You know like, “what’s the story in Bala-f—ing-mory?” The “f—ing” is so well placed there, giving an almost Rabelaisian lyricism to the obscenity.’

Though Iannucci is associated with what is known as ‘the comedy of embarrassment’, there also seems to be an anger behind his comedy. I ask him if he worries that as he gets older and more comfortable he will lose his edge? ‘Not really. I have never felt as angry about anything in my life as I felt about the invasion of Iraq. I went on the march and took the train from Gerard’s Cross, which is in the stockbroker belt, and to my surprise it was packed with protesters with lunch boxes and sturdy walking boots, and polite notices like “Really, Mr Blair, think again”.’

He was 17 when his father died, did that leave him angry, thinking ‘why me?’ ‘Yes, but it’s more I…’ He hesitates. ‘He died the summer before I went to Oxford and he was so pleased… He had this van he drove around in and he said he was going to drive down to Oxford and see me… So the immediate thing was sorrow that he never got to see that moment happen. He hadn’t been to university himself. He had been 16 in the war and joined the partisans and left afterwards to come here. Just got on a boat.’

There was no swearing at home when Iannucci was growing up in Glasgow. ‘Well, there was some swearing, from my dad. But it was in Italian. Because he was always working hard, it tended to be more my mum that I saw and it’s nice that she was able to come to the premiere of In the Loop in Glasgow, with two of my aunts. She was used to the swearing, having seen The Thick of It, but still, we have this photo of three little old ladies in the front row watching a 40ft Malcolm swearing his head off and…’ he gives an embarrassed shrug and his unexpected, toothy smile.


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.