He’s a maniacal texter who doesn’t own a computer and has a profound fear of daylight and shorts. Is Bill Nighy, star of Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked, just another oddball actor, or one of the last great British eccentrics? Judge for yourself.

He’s one distracted man, Bill Nighy. ‘Just… need… to… finish… ‘The sentence trails off as his crooked fingers move over the buttons on his phone. Texting is an obsession of his, he says (distractedly), because he doesn’t use email, having… no… um… computer. Friends and colleagues of his receive dozens a day, apparently – pithy observations, apercus, updates about his daily goings-on. He invented the concept of twitter long before it had an official name.

Another of his obsessions is going on in his head, and in mine – Bob Dylan. Though we are upstairs in the green room of someone else’s photography studio, it is his music we are listening to. He always has his own with him and it is nearly always Dylan. The actor listens to the singer every day.

Dylan, indeed, is the soundtrack to his life and has been since he first heard him in the early Sixties. This either shows a wilful lack of imagination, or an impressive streak of loyalty, I can’t decide which. What I do know is that when I correctly identify the album, a fairly obscure one from the late Seventies called Slow Train Coming, my stock rises instantly. ‘Oh,’ he says, looking up from his text. ‘You know your Dylan.’

Bill Nighy is a tall and spidery 59-year-old in thick-rimmed, Eric Morecambe glasses, a silk scarf and a tailor-made suit. Though he is easy company – we have met before, in a pub in Norfolk, through a mutual friend – he is, shall we say, a complex fellow. A borderline eccentric, in truth, not only obsessed with Dylan and texting but also with the weather and football (he is a fanatical Crystal Palace supporter).

When in a hotel he likes to keep the curtains closed, even when there is a view to enjoy, and he has what amounts to a phobia about wearing shorts. ‘There are only two people in the world who look good in shorts,’ he says, ‘and I’m not one of them.’

The two being? ‘Brad Pitt and Barack Obama. Summer trousers are cooler than shorts anyway and you don’t have to smear stuff on your legs. I go pink and septic in the sun if I don’t smear. The other problem I have with summer is that I don’t like linen, but I do like to wear a jacket. And I like to wear a jacket because I don’t like my shape. So even in the sun without a jacket I feel… ‘ Pause. A sweeping, off-the-shoulder gesture. ‘… lost.’

Nighy has a pleasingly dry sense of humour and is a fine anecdotalist, telling self-deprecating stories in a deadpan voice so mellow people assume he has just woken up when he answers the phone. He is also refreshingly unpretentious about the business of acting, saying that he loves it when a director gives him something to do with his hands, or, better still, a limp. That time in the pub he entertained us with stories about the drinking culture among the actors of the Seventies and Eighties – the Harrises, the Hurts, the O’Tooles.

I only realised afterwards that he wasn’t drinking himself. That had to go in 1992, or rather be replaced with an addiction to Diet Coke, fruit gums and builder’s tea. He doesn’t like to talk on the record about that period of his life, feeling he has nothing to add to a comment he once made about his ‘unhealthy relationship’ with alcohol, how he ‘drank for England, Scotland and Wales’ and how he never had a button other people seem to possess which tells you when to stop.

Although he has earned a decent living as an actor for almost 40 years – the David Hare and Tom Stoppard plays at the National, the Stephen Poliakoff dramas for the BBC – it wasn’t until his Bafta award-winning performance in Love Actually (2003), the Richard Curtis film in which he played an ageing rock star, that he really tasted stardom.

Since then he has been much in demand, everything from the stepfather in Shaun of the Dead, to the cuckolded husband in Notes on a Scandal and the tentacled Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. At the moment – the past and coming year – he is appearing in seven films, which rather suggests he finds it hard to say no.

‘There is that,’ he says, leaning forward to fidget with my notes. ‘All actors who have been around for a long time, which I have, and have been skint for long periods, which I have, find it difficult to turn down jobs. If I turn anything down my stomach turns over. I feel sick. It feels like gambling.’

He is teaming up with Richard Curtis again next month for The Boat that Rocked, a comedy about the pirate radio of the Sixties (his co-stars include Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh). ‘One Boat. Eight DJs. No morals’ – that’s how it is being sold on the posters. ‘Whatever else the film might be,’ Nighy says, ‘it was mainly an excuse for Richard to play all the songs from that period, the Who, the Small Faces, the Kinks. He is a slave to them. It’s funny but at the time, 1966, I just accepted that there was all this good music around. I thought that was the norm but, in retrospect, I realise that it was an extraordinary time for music. Extraordinary.’

The film captures the duality of 1966 Britain well – while some men experimented with sideburns, felt trousers and afghan coats, others were still wearing pin stripes and bowler hats. I ask Nighy how he dressed at that time. ‘I was never a hippy, per se. I just helped them out when they were busy. But yes, we did look very different. I would be refused in pubs for the way I dressed. Other customers found the sight of long hair on men unsettling. I was routinely pulled on my way home. The police would put their hands in my pockets.’

Did he ever get the rubber glove treatment? ‘On one occasion, I’m afraid so. The finger up the… whatever.’ Really? In London? ‘Cornwall. A detective was crawling over my half of the tent looking for drugs and I was protesting that he was wasting his time.’

Was he wasting his time? ‘Nothing was found, certainly not up there. I was never that ingenious. It was an occupational hazard being searched. Nothing remarkable about it. You’d expect trouble.’

As far as I know there is nothing on the record about him taking drugs, but that appears to be what he is talking about. Does he remember his first spliff? ‘I smoked marijuana for the first time on a beach in Folkestone with a bloke I had never seen before and have never seen since. It was big and it made me feel sick and if I’d had any sense I would have left it there. I didn’t. I don’t do it anymore. We’re at liberty to change our minds, if you will pardon the pun.’

But at the time it must have seemed like us and them, as the Pink Floyd song puts it. ‘Yes, we used to divide the world up into straights and heads. We were the heads, the freaks. If anyone got a new girlfriend in our gang, the first question was “is she a head?” And if she wasn’t, there would be a problem.’ How old was he when he realised his ambition to become a bohemian? ‘Wow, that’s a nice way of putting it. You’re right, I did aspire to a bohemian life. I wanted to live like a writer. A bohemian writer. I knew that was what I wanted from an early age, my mid teens probably. But I didn’t feel sure enough about myself to know what I was looking for. What could you call it, self-expression? I thought that sounded too posh.’

I ask whether he can see the Counter Culture more from the perspective of the Establishment – the straights – now that he is older. Surely they had good reason to worry that a student revolution might flare up at any moment – it did in Paris – and their sense that the moral fabric of the nation was being eroded was, if nothing else, well intentioned. Wasn’t that why the government wanted to close Radio Caroline down?

‘Certainly the subversion was all to do with music. Radio Caroline was seen as a threat and was chased all over the seas. The best thing about them was they had a good signal. Radio Luxembourg was great but it would always drift off the signal. I would listen to it on a beautiful old wireless that I kept by my bed. It gave off heat. But it was also the television. I remember sitting in front of Top of the Pops and Like a Rolling Stone came on. I found it breathtaking. My dad just shook his head. It was beyond his comprehension. I wanted him to understand because he was a good man, and we would talk about music. We often had the Bing v Frank debate. But this was too far, he couldn’t get it. Now I am older I can see why he didn’t get it.’

His father ran a garage and died of a heart attack when Nighy was in his twenties. It left him with a sense of ‘something missing’. His mother was a nurse and the family – he was one of three children – lived in the suburbs (Caterham, Surrey). He left school shortly before he turned 16. ‘I was into soul and Motown and the Stones, but Dylan was the one who changed my life. I left home on the strength of Dylan.’

Did he buy a guitar and harmonica? ‘No, too lazy. I did pick up a guitar once, but the strings hurt my fingers so I put it down again. Anything I had to work at I abandoned. Actually I’m grateful I didn’t learn because I’ve got funny hands.’ His condition is called Dupuytren’s contracture. It causes some of his fingers to bend in towards the palm. He holds them up to show me. ‘I know some guitar players who have the same condition and they find it deeply irritating. It’s hereditary. My mum had it. I first became affected by it in my twenties. There are two glamorous facts about it. It only affects people with Viking blood and Frank Sinatra had it in one hand.’

He did join a garage band at one point, as the singer, ‘but it was all too scary’. His hair was partly to blame for his shaken confidence. ‘I had a catastrophe when I hit puberty in that my hair went violently curly. I tried putting some gunk on it to keep it down but nothing worked. One day a teacher pulled me by my hair to the front of the class and let go, saying: “Nighy, what horrible hair!” ‘ Pause. Gloomy face. ‘The whole class thought it was Christmas. I was called Horrible Hair after that. No one cool had curly hair. This was a disaster because it meant any prospect of my joining the Rolling Stones was gone forever.’

Could have joined the Who, I point out. Look at the footage of Roger Daltrey at Woodstock. ‘Yeah but his curls fell. They looked great. They had movement. Mine went sideways and up. It wasn’t a good look, trust me.’

Looks pretty straight now, his hair. ‘It’s funny, I can’t remember when it went back, yet it must have been one of the best days of my life.’ He brushes his hand over the crown of his head. ‘Even if it had been straight then I would still have been disabled with self-consciousness. I used to walk the dog a lot, that was how I tackled my self-consciousness. He was called Riff. It legitimised my late night walks. I found it easier to be on my own.’

So, hang on, as an 18 year-old crippled with self-consciousness, he decided to go on the stage? ‘One of the things that is assumed about actors is that they are extrovert, which is almost never the case, in my experience. Anyway, I didn’t really decide to be an actor. My plan was to become a writer like my hero Hemingway, but I didn’t have the courage.’ Though he threw away his underwear – because that was what Hemingway did – and left home with the intension of reaching Persia, he only got as far as France. Part of his problem, he reckons, is that he has always been ‘a world-class procrastinator’.

He doesn’t think he is an introvert, though. ‘Not exactly, and shy doesn’t quite cover it, because that suggests a degree of arrogance, a mixture of extreme vanity and self-disgust. No, acting for me wasn’t so much a matter of knowing what I wanted to do, it was more about knowing what I didn’t want to do.’

Which was? ‘Work hard in a nine-to-five job. Now I come to think of it, when people warned me that there would be long periods out of work if I became an actor I couldn’t keep a straight face because that was exactly what I had in mind. Yeah baby. That sounded like a result. And you could go around saying: “I am an actor but I’m not currently working.” Result again.’

Although Nighy manages to make everything seem light and effortless in conversation, he does suffer from nerves and his repertoire of twitches tells a different story. He says he has to mug for photographs, deflecting attention away from himself and from his anxiousness. He is often mistaken for someone who is relaxed, he adds, which is hardly ever the case. And he accepts that, with his quirks and compulsions, he is probably not the easiest person to live with.

Nevertheless, for 27 years, he did live with the actress Diana Quick, the mother of his daughter, Mary (who is in her early twenties and an actress). They separated last year and nowadays he seems to prefer his own company. Tellingly, he often seems to combine contradiction in his roles, between swagger and bathos, between tension and relaxation. And when he is standing on a stage his abiding feeling is one of – a curious choice of word this – ‘shame’. As for the inevitable rejection that comes with being an actor, ‘you don’t know about it till it starts happening, then you do get used to it. If you are lucky you are seen for 50 jobs a year and you get five of them’.

Nighy found himself working for the Everyman Theatre Company in Liverpool in the mid Seventies, alongside several of the subsequently famous: Pete Postlethwaite, Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale. He remembers his time there fondly. The drama was edgy and experimental and he thinks it is harder for theatre companies to shock these days. Certainly the f-word has lost its power. ‘Certain people have a gift for saying it well. I’m not sure whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that people say it in public more now. I imagine it is probably best kept for certain occasions. Writers who are brilliant know how much more powerful – and often how much more comic – the f-word is if it is used sparingly. It can be deeply satisfying, especially if you are the one saying it on stage.’

Like he did in Love Actually, when his character was doing a live radio interview. ‘Exactly,’ he gives a slow and deep chuckle at the memory. ‘I used to be quite bullish about its use when I was younger but now I take that view that if the word offends people then it offends them. There is no point saying to people you shouldn’t be offended… Can you believe it is more than 30 years since Kenneth Tynan first said the f-word on air?’

He is not very good on his decades. ‘Oh yes, sorry, I tend to miss out the Eighties, so I think everything was 30 years ago when actually it was 40 years ago. I went to drama school in, when, 1968? It was the Summer of Love, apparently. It won’t have been a freak who came up with that description, it must have been a newspaper editor.

‘I wish someone had told me it was the Summer of Love at the time because I don’t think I was particularly promiscuous. I certainly thought everyone else was at it though. It was another example of men getting away with it, as Martin Amis would say. We would always turn to our girlfriends, or the girls we wanted to sleep with, and say “baby, be cool”. It was a scoundrel’s remark, like “don’t be paranoid”. You can’t deny being paranoid because the minute you deny it you sound paranoid. If your girlfriend had caught you in bed with her best friend you would say “baby, don’t be paranoid”.’

What about all that public nudity in the Summer of Love? Presumably, given his aversion to wearing shorts, he wasn’t all that keen. ‘It was a tough time to be young, having to take your clothes off and be cool about it. I didn’t have the shape so nothing would have persuaded me to do it.’

Didn’t he strip off in Gideon’s Daughter? ‘Did I? Oh yeah, I did have to take my top off. It was a lonely moment, I tell you. I had to lie on top of a naked Ronni Ancona. Had to simulate passion with noises. You wake up and think, “Ah, what am I doing today? Oh yes, today I have to simulate passion with noises.” It’s never a good start to the day. It’s very exposing to make noises because you never know what noises other people make. It’s bonkers. Ludicrous.

‘The only way to get through it is to think that your job is to look after the girl – that is your responsibility, protect her from the crew, obscure parts of her body. The trouble is, you end up in positions from which it is impossible to make lurve. But playing the gentleman helps take your mind off your own predicament, off your puny body and your non-existent genitalia. Having someone making up your bum with half a dozen sparks watching is not my idea of eroticism.’

Sounds like the stuff of anxiety dreams. ‘Oh man. And it’s always so unnecessary. There is never a justification for it in the plot. It is all to do with budget and having a chance to show breasts.’

He once had to do a naked scene on stage, he says with a shake of his head. ‘That was even worse. The deep winter in the Hampstead Theatre Club which had no central heating and I was supposed to come on as if emerging from a shower. One of the female stage hands had to pour a bucket of water over me just before I came on, and the water was always ice cold. What there was of my manhood would retreat into my torso. In the matinee you could hear the audience talking and one day I distinctly heard a woman say: “Oh no, that’s disgusting!” ‘ Couldn’t he have objected? ‘Yeah, but they would have told me I was being paranoid. Too right I’m paranoid. I’ve nothing on and there are 200 people staring at me.’

Baby, be cool? ‘Exactly. Baby, be cool.’


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.