If Bob Monkhouse had bludgeoned his own mother to death with an entrenching tool, calmly burnt down an orphanage and then experimented openly with cannibalism during a Royal Variety Performance, it is doubtful whether the poor chap’s critics could have come up with stronger words of disapprobation than those they have already levelled at him over the years. ‘Despicable’, ‘slimy’ and ‘chilling’ are typical examples.
While it is a pretty serious crime to spend a lifetime irritating people in the name of light entertainment, surely Monkhouse never deserved to be roughed up quite as excessively as he has been in the past – or indeed, despite his recent rehabilitation as a hero of comedy, as he still sometimes is today. He’s an old man now. He probably wears carpet slippers. Being cruel to him just doesn’t seem funny any more.
When I meet him on an overcast late summer afternoon at his l6th-century redbrick farmhouse in rural Bedfordshire, he is still licking his wounds from a mauling he had received a few days earlier. ‘His delivery is like being touched up by a Moonie encyclopaedia salesman,’ wrote AA Gill. ‘Every mannerism drips insincerity and smarm. It’s like having margarine massaged into your hair. No, it’s like wearing marzipan socks.’ Gill added that he hopes he is never introduced to Bob Monkhouse in person for fear of finding him terribly nice, amusing and thoughtful. ‘A loathing of his every syllable and nuance is one of the cornerstones of my critical edifice,’ Gill continued. ‘If I ever found I liked him, my world would collapse.’
Inevitably, when you come face to face with Monkhouse you do find him terribly nice, amusing and thoughtful. That is his tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who needs to be liked quite as much as this man. Nor, with the obvious exception of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, anyone quite so effortlessly capable of rendering his or her public persona unlovable. On stage, Monkhouse has some of the sharpest lines you’ll ever hear: ‘They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now.’ Or, ‘I’m a hard man to ignore. But well worth the effort.’ Or, ‘I’d like to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like his passengers.’ But he just seems to try too hard when he’s telling them. He shoots his cuffs, smiles and chews too much. His quick-fire patter is too polished and hammy. At home, by contrast, he speaks slowly and croakily in a subdued and wistful voice. He seems languid, gentle and relaxed – not at all repulsive. That distinctive mole on the chin is still there, as is the permanently arched eyebrow. But instead of a dinner-jacket he wears an embroidered beach shirt, its tails untucked, its buttons undone to reveal the sort of tanned, leathery chest you would expect a 70-year-old show-business personality to have.
‘The irritant factor is still there,’ Monkhouse says with a sigh, as he leans toward me across a wrought-iron garden table. ‘In full. Apparently. I don’t get upset about bad reviews from intelligent writers. What I hate is people like AA Gill who attack me personally and who are blisteringly unpleasant. I inhabit that persona he rejects – and it hurts. In the same way that someone refusing to shake your hand is hurtful. And, anyway, he misses the point when he complains that I am insincere. When did I ever say I was offering sincerity? I’m not coming out and saying, “I really mean that, folks.” I’m not offering exhortations to be brave or patriotic or spiritually uplifted. The only thing I’m sincere about is that I sincerely want you to laugh.’
It would take Lake Windermere dropped from the sky to dampen Monkhouse’s enthusiasm for making people laugh. Writing jokes is a compulsion for him. Throw any topical subject his way and, instantaneously, he will be able to turn it into a one-liner. His photographic memory helps. As Harry Thompson, producer of Have I Got News for You, has said, his skill is that he knows so many old jokes he can manufacture a new one for any situation using the component parts of others. But going to the grave obsessively thinking up jokes is one thing, attempting to perform them as you go is another. Monkhouse says he used to find it depressing when old heroes of his didn’t know when to retire. ‘I would see Flanagan and Allen trying to cavort on stage when they were clearly close to their dotage. The lower eyelid had fallen from the eye.  Their timing was out. It was painful to watch. But now I’m 70 I can understand why they did it. They had nothing to fall back on. The joy I still get from confecting comedy is extreme.’
Every profession has terrifyingly ambitious types unfettered by obvious natural ability who, nevertheless, rise by virtue of their persistence and self-belief. Journalism is full of them. The Royal Navy had Lord Mountbatten, who was so mediocre and accident-prone that the Admiralty had to keep promoting him to get him out of its way. I suspect that Bob Monkhouse is the comedy world’s equivalent. That’s not to say he isn’t an inspired gag writer. Nor to deny that he is probably the world’s leading expert on the techniques of comedy, as is clear from reading his autobiography Crying with Laughter. It is full of self-deprecating anecdotes, salacious gossip and analysis of comic technique. At one time or another Monkhouse has worked with nearly all the big names in post-War comedy, so he is uniquely placed to dissect their work.
Sitting in his garden, the soothing bill and coo of woodpigeons in the background, Monkhouse becomes animated. He strips jokes down to show me how they work. He explains the principles of timing, ‘the rule of three’, and the Arthur Askey ‘check step’ you should take before delivering your ‘topper’. Clearly, when it comes to tinkering around under the bonnet of comedy with the, um, monkey-wrench of laughter, he is a master mechanic. The trouble is, on stage, he’s never learned to make it look as if he isn’t – in the way that, say, the apparently rambling, vague and amateurish Eddie Izzard does. Even Monkhouse seems to know this in his heart. ‘I actually can’t watch myself on television,’ he says. ‘Yesterday I tried to sit through a tape of a new “best of” compilation that they are making. But I couldn’t watch this man.’ So why has he gone on punishing himself – and AA Gill – for so many years? Given that his parents assumed he could never make a decent living from his profession, it might be that in the early years he was driven by a need to prove them wrong and – an almost impossible feat, this – win their approval.
Growing up in Beckenham, Kent, the closest young Robert came to his father – ‘a prematurely balding chartered accountant who had a habitual dislike of people’ – was when he was struck by him so hard he had to go to hospital to be stitched. The blow had been provoked by Robert accidentally dropping his towel while stepping out of the tin bath in front of the fire. His mother was told that he had fallen off his bike and, for a while, Robert and his father were ‘co-conspirators, sharing a male secret, allied in a lie that only we knew about’.
His relationship with his mother was much less comfortable. When the 21-year-old Bob married against her wishes she didn’t speak to him again until he was 41. Prove his parents wrong Monkhouse most certainly did. He left Dulwich College in London at the age of 17 and immediately started writing gags for such music-hall turns as Arthur Askey, Jimmy Edwards and Max Miller. National Service interrupted his budding career but he used it to his advantage by conning his way into a job at the BBC – he duped an army psychiatrist into signing a letter requesting an audition on the grounds that it would be the only cure for Corporal Monkhouse’s delusional psychosis. By the late Forties and early Fifties Monkhouse was appearing in his own television and radio comedy programmes as well as writing material for just about every big star, from Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
In 1958, he starred in Carry On Sergeant, the first Carry On film, and would have gone on to take the Jim Dale and Roy Castle roles in subsequent films had he not been offered three times as much money to play the lead in Dentist in the Chair (1959), something which seemed sensible at the time but which he now regrets. His career flagged in the mid-Sixties only to take off again in 1967 with The Golden Shot, which at its peak had 16 million viewers. Monkhouse went through a bad patch again in 1972, when he was sacked from the programme for taking a bribe (a photography book and a Wilkinson Sword razor). He has always been an obsessive collector – or rather hoarder – of things, from stamps to tins of food and old films. This obsession brought him to his lowest point: he was arrested in 1978 for conspiracy to defraud film companies by illegally importing films for his private collection (he was subsequently cleared of all charges).
In the Eighties, Monkhouse hosted a string of game shows but by then he had become lumped in the public imagination with Jimmy Tarbuck, Frank Carson and Jim Davidson, the old school of unreconstructed and unfunny television stars. ‘I thought I’d had my day,’ he says, shaking his head at the memory. ‘My career had slowed down. They’d cancelled The 64 Million Dollar Question and Bob’s Your Uncle. There was nothing for me at the BBC. It depressed me. Briefly.’ Then in 1993, against everyone’s advice, he was interviewed for Radio 4’s In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, and everything changed. He cut a sympathetic figure. He was asked to write an autobiography; it became a bestseller. He appeared on Have I Got News for You, presented himself as a dry and poker-faced wit, and stole the show. Stephen Fry said how much he had always admired him, and his reinvention was complete.
Today, at 70, Monkhouse has never been more in demand: presenting the Lottery, hosting Wipeout, a daytime quiz show, and packing out theatres again as a stand-up. An armchair psychiatrist might devise a theory about how Monkhouse, a comedian who can’t stand watching himself, was driven masochistically by the need to win parental approval.  But this won’t quite wash. He seems to crave attention and admiration from everyone. And egomaniacs are often full of self-doubt. You can tell he’s only half-joking when he describes himself as a shallow, selfish, cowardly liar. ‘I’m aware of my own inadequacies but I’m not tortured by them,’ he says with a shrug. ‘I know that I’ve been a fool and made some stupid decisions in the past. As a performer I wish I had had a dark side. But tyranny was not within my compass. All I have is a perky mind. Not a mind of any depth. Which is another source of regret. I’m superficial. Skittering around on the surface all the time. I wish I had done a degree. Even sociology would have done.’
I had always thought the thing that set Bob Monkhouse apart from just about every other successful comedian you can think of was that he seemed so boringly sane and calculating. (Think how unbalanced Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams and Benny Hill were. And look at John Cleese, Stephen Fry and Ken Dodd. Cuckoo to a man.) Now I’m not so sure. Neither is Monkhouse. ‘Am I mad?’ he asks. ‘I don’t know. It depends on your definition. Not mad. Just silly. And that’s probably been my saving grace. Being silly. That’s probably the nicest thing about me. I’m soppy, juvenile and I have a light heart. I’m desperately affected by emotions. But I have no angst.’
Another saving grace may be that he is too thick-skinned to develop a persecution complex or to wallow in melancholy. ‘Self-pity is as habit-forming, corrosive to the spirit and delusory as any narcotic,’ he believes. ‘You have to concentrate on its absurdity and mock it out of your mind.’ At school he had an obesity problem caused by a dodgy thyroid (it was later successfully treated). When he was mocked about it (‘Fatty Arbuckle’) he wouldn’t get upset, he’d just withdraw into his own world and draw cartoons. His work was published by the Beano and Dandy while he was a schoolboy.
He still sees things in simple cartoon terms. ‘It’s a lovely way to see the world. If you can get away with it.’ He says that he is constitutionally incapable of worry and that he nearly always feels happy. ‘And sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn’t shut up about it, because that might awaken a great deal of irritation and envy in itself.’ A sunny disposition can be a defence mechanism against pain, though – albeit a healthy form of denial. In the past, Monkhouse has been so repressed mentally, he has reacted to traumatic events physically. When his grandfather died, the ten-year-old Robert lost the ability to speak for three months and was afterwards left with a stutter. He and his first wife had four stillborn babies before Gary was born in 1951. Gary had cerebral palsy, and Monkhouse began suffering from blinding migraine attacks which continued until Gary died in 1992.
When his wife went into labour with their second child, Monkhouse was so apprehensive he developed a strange burping complaint and thought he was going to die.  (The baby was fine and the couple went on to have another healthy child and Bob stopped burping.) On one occasion while presenting The Golden Shot he broke down in tears as he read out a letter sent in by a blind elderly widow who needed £20 to replace her beloved radio, stolen by thieves. Later in the same show, someone made him laugh and this turned into a bout of uncontrollable giggling that lasted for more than half a minute.
Has he trained his agile brain to be shallow and his outlook to be permanently happy for fear of falling victim to the dark emotional forces he suppresses? ‘I had a great urge to be liked,’ he says. ‘I think I was absolutely two people. I was the child my parents expected me to be. Unemotional. But only because I suppressed that side of me. I became reserved. My mother saw all signs of emotion as being weak and despicable. Despicable. I would hear her speak of people who were loud or flamboyant, or who wept, with utter contempt. My father was the same: a joyless, lugubrious man. Eventually I escaped them and today I wish I could go back and embrace them and understand them and still be myself.’
He pauses and studies his fingers. ‘I think I invented a facade. I didn’t love the person I was. It wasn’t until my first marriage failed and I fell in love with Jackie and she with me that I actually began to like myself.’ Jackie had been his secretary for ten years before he married her in 1973. He describes her as being gregarious in ways which he is not, always on the phone and wanting to socialise. ‘She has a more realistic view of people than I do. She says, ‘He isn’t a very nice man; she’s a bitch,’ and I can never see it. I’m always looking at how people react to me, not how they are themselves. Selfishness takes some strange forms.’ Jackie is 62, tall and blonde with apple cheeks and impossibly white teeth which she flashes when she smiles. As we are talking in the garden, she shouts across from the kitchen, ‘Can I have a word, Bob?’ ‘Yes, darling,’ he says, immediately rising and heading over to where she is standing in the doorway. I overhear her saying, ‘And he was just so rude.’
When Monkhouse returns he is looking sheepish and explains that when our photographer arrived he had told him that it would be okay to have a look around the house for a suitable place to set up a shot, but that Jackie had found him upstairs in the bedroom. The photographer now emerges looking equally sheepish and begins looking for locations in the large garden instead. ‘He’s probably a genius,’ Bob says shaking his head as he watches our man disappear from view behind a weeping willow.
Because his parents argued all the time, Bob Monkhouse hates confrontation. In the 25 years he has been happily married he has only had three arguments with his wife. About the same thing. He cannot keep his side of the house tidy. He snores and so the couple have separate bedrooms in different wings; they also have a shared room in the middle. With disarming candour he tells me his sex life improved recently after he started taking Viagra. ‘It works after 40 minutes and lasts for about 90 minutes. I’ll give you one to try if you like, I’ve got them upstairs.’
He may now be a kind, fond and foolish 70-year-old who says he is at the age where happiness is finding his glasses soon enough to remember what it was he wanted them for. But he is still obsessed with sex, or ‘making love’, as he always calls it. His memoirs were notable for their embarrassing frankness on this subject and contained a gripping account of his five-hour romp with Diana Dors and his subsequent terror when her husband, a gangster figure, found out, produced a razor and threaten to ‘slit his eyeballs’. His encounter with a transsexual had an equally comic outcome: ‘It was like plunging your feet into an apple-pie bed.’
Compared with what his generation got up to, the young stars of today must seem like a pretty tame bunch. ‘Yes, my lot were at it all day long, as well as all night. They did it a lot more than the previous generation – they had all been too frightened of pregnancy. In my day syphilis had all but disappeared. There were various forms of reliable protection, condoms, the cap and so forth. I was fortunate with the timing. Just as I am fortunate with Viagra now.’ He adopts a serious face. ‘I was promiscuous. I think I did keep count. I could have said 137 at one point and virtually named them. But after a while it all seemed a bit vague. The press didn’t know about what went on then and wouldn’t have written about it if they did. Now, if I was on location in Manchester and I asked the porter to send a girl up to my room, the next day she would get £10,000 from the Sun for her story.’
Matter-of-factly he says of the serial adultery in his first marriage that he simply wasn’t happy being monogamous. ‘My first wife and I had only stayed together for Gary. He was the most important thing in my life for 40 years.’ Pause. ‘I miss him so much. If he were here, he would be contentedly drawing over there with his right foot and would look at you and put his toe up to say it was okay you being here because he liked the look of you. But after an hour he would come over and tap you on the shoulder because he would think you had been here long enough. He was a martinet. But he had the personality of a star. And he was knock-down handsome. I’ll show you a photo. But he could never speak nor hear nor stand or sit unaided. I would sit and talk to him for hours in that room there.’ He points to a downstairs window. ‘He couldn’t hear me but I felt I could confide everything to him. He loved it and he would hug me with his legs.’
Gary Monkhouse was brought up at home but when his condition worsened he became a resident at his choice of centres for the disabled. In 1992, just before he died, he expressed a fondness for another occupant, a young woman whose physical impairments were even greater than his own. Because the local clergy would not agree to conduct a wedding because they couldn’t be certain that both participants fully understood the undertaking, a church blessing was arranged instead. The Sunday Mirror ran a front-page story to the effect that Monkhouse, by not recognising the occasion as a real wedding, was denying the woman her proper status as a wife. When Monkhouse read it he burst into tears. A few weeks later the paper printed a front-page apology and retraction. ‘That was awful,’ Monkhouse says, averting his eyes. ‘I was horrified to see pictures inside which made Gary look disfigured and foolish. It upset me deeply and I felt utter contempt for the editor. I didn’t want Gary to see that bloody paper. Some stupid bastard showed it to him.’
Denis Norden describes reminiscing as the most fun an older person can have without actually having much fun. For Monkhouse it seems to be as haunting an experience as it is a pleasurable one. Half of his old show-business friends are now dead, he says. ‘Yet it’s funny, you know. I can see Bernie Winters walking around that house now as clearly as I can see you.’ His eye lingers on the ghost for an unnervingly long time before a twitch of his saturnine eyebrow brings me back into focus. ‘The other day I went to the phone to call Tony Hawes [a writer on The Des O’Connor Show]. He’s been dead two years. That wasn’t just forgetfulness. It was an overwhelming urge to share a piece of information with him. I can’t believe Tony’s not there.’
Not so long ago, Monkhouse had an intimation of his own eventual death. ‘I had a blip called a cerebral infarction where my face sort of slid south.’ He pulls a lopsided face. ‘It only lasted a week but I was sure I’d had a stroke.’ He went for a cat scan and when nothing showed up he asked if he had lost brain cells from alcohol abuse over the years. The doctor said he hadn’t and added that his liver was in perfect condition, too. Monkhouse still drinks a fair amount of wine and whisky and never suffers from hangovers. I tell him he’s a jammy bugger. ‘Exactly! I’ve never told anyone that before because I was afraid that would be the reaction I’d get.’
The inevitability of his own death does not frighten him, he says, it just makes him curious to know what it will be like.  ‘I don’t think there’s going to be anything there.’ If there is an afterlife and he is called to account, could Monkhouse say that he had been a good man in this life? ‘Oh, I think so.  An inoffensive one. I think so. I’ve never done anything deliberately mean. I stole when I was a teenager but nothing considerable. I’m harmless. I just tell jokes. I know I’ve irritated people but that’s more about them than it is about me.’
Friendly, he certainly is. Although I doubt he is as irrepressibly cheerful as he claims to be. Guileless is a word that could be applied. He will try to answer any question you ask, however personal. For one who earns his living in a profession fuelled by high-octane ego, he even exhibits surprising humility. On the directions to his house which he had faxed to me he had written ‘here are my directions’ and then crossed out the word ‘my’. And he is happier than most to regale you with stories which don’t reflect well. Eric Sykes, he says, always hated him. When they met recently, Sykes said, ‘I don’t know, Bob, my memory’s getting so bad. Can you remember why have I disliked you so much for all these years?’ Monkhouse said he had no idea. ‘No?’ Sykes shrugged. ‘Oh well, be bloody stupid to stop now.’
It is four o’clock, time for Monkhouse to take the Chinese remedy he hopes will cure him of his vitiligo, a skin condition which leaves his face and hands piebald, and which he covers up with masking make-up. The herbal cure is a sort of tea made of garden sweepings, he says. He has been taking it for six weeks, but it hasn’t worked yet. On my way out I pause to admire a large Monet hanging in the hall. Jackie appears and points out that it’s a fake. In their second home in Barbados they have a Picasso which is also a copy. Jackie makes light of having had a wobbly earlier about the photographer, ‘But I just don’t understand what he was doing snooping about up there. It’s so untidy.’ At the door, Bob Monkhouse says under his breath, ‘Please be kind.’ There is no laughter in his voice but I smile back at him. I should have said, ‘Be bloody stupid to start now.’ But the line doesn’t come to me until I am halfway back to London. And anyway it would probably have stuck in my throat.
In 2001 Bob Monkhouse’s estranged son, Simon, died of a heroin overdose in a guesthouse in Tailand. He was 46.


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.