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.


Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest role plunges him into the world of terrorism, torture and difficult choices – and it suits him down to the ground. He talks to Nigel Farndale about his life in hollywood and the joy of ‘celebrity godparents’

He may have a large head, but at least it is a film actor’s large head, one that casting directors and cameramen favour. The ‘he’ I refer to is Jake Gyllenhaal, pronounced ‘Jill-en-hall’. The favouritism is to do with the body-to-head ratio: think Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman; big heads, small and compact bodies. True, at 6ft 2in, Gyllenhaal is taller than the average film star, but tall actors can have that golden ratio, too. Look at Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant.

Anyway, I mention this because I am on a low and squashy sofa, while Gyllenhaal is managing to sprawl, somehow, on a high and upright chair. The man is almost horizontal, with his neck disappearing into his shoulders and his long legs foreshortened in front of him, in front of me. From this viewpoint, I can appreciate that his body-to-head ratio is golden indeed.

He is golden in another respect. At 26 he has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood. As he himself jokes, he has gone in a short space of time from having directors say, ‘Who is Jake Gyllenhaal?’ to ‘Get me Jake Gyllenhaal’ to ‘Get me someone who looks like Jake Gyllenhaal.’

In the past eight years he has starred in 14 films, but the one that put him on the radar was the strange and possibly deep, possibly meaningless Donnie Darko in 2001. Three years later he had a more conventional box office hit with The Day After Tomorrow, about the apocalyptic effects of global warming. But it is on the three films he made in 2005 that his reputation rests: Proof, about a maths genius played by Gwyneth Paltrow; Jarhead, Sam Mendes’s film about marines kicking their heels while waiting for the first Gulf war to start; and Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s lyrical epic about the relationship between two gay cowboys. Gyllenhaal received an Oscar nomination for that one. Gravity disguised as lightness of manner: that is what critics have identified as the secret of his mesmerising screen presence. Like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, they say, he knows how to emote without words.

In person his manner seems easy, his voice gentle with dark undercurrents. Gyllenhaal’s eyes are blue, and big like a cow’s, his nose is solid-looking and he has a full and sculpted mouth which turns up at the corners. He is talking about how, despite being born there, he is not really a Hollywood person. ‘I just don’t really buy it. But I do buy London, because there is an appreciation of growth here.’

Having no idea what he means by the phrase ‘appreciation of growth’, and suspecting he doesn’t either – he is bright and articulate, was educated at Columbia University indeed, but he does occasionally slip into actor-speak – I ask him about another growth, the one on his face. ‘This?’ he says stroking a neatly clipped Edwardian beard that is dark auburn in colour and at odds with the sloppy, crewneck jumper and T-shirt ensemble he is wearing. ‘I grew it for The Brothers, a Jim Sheridan film.’

Oh, I thought it might be to play the president of Iran.

‘You saw that?’ he says with a laugh. ‘Yeah, right, supposedly he looks like me.’ He refers to his cameo in a recent Saturday Night Live sketch: it was a rap song called I Ran. One of the lyrics was about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being like ‘a hairy Jake Gyllenhaal.’

He still gets recognised, even with the beard. ‘There is a certain type of fan who will recognise you no matter what disguise you wear. But, hey, I have a grey spot right here.’ He points to his beard.

‘Maybe when I’ve got grey all over no one will recognise me. My sister has a grey spot there,’ he points to his head. ‘Maybe it’s something genetic.’

His sister is the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who made her name in Secretary. Must have been weird for him to watch that one, I say, especially the erotically charged scenes in which his sister is stripped and spanked by her boss. ‘Well it wasn’t necessarily erotic for me,’ he says.

I compliment him on his use of the word ‘necessarily’. ‘Thank you. It’s funny, when she was first going for auditions everyone was telling her she wasn’t sexy, not sexual. I remember her buying some skimpy cut-off dress for one audition and it just wasn’t her. Now she is treated as a sex object. Go figure.’

His sister appeared with him in Donnie Darko; are they competitive? ‘I think I was for a time – there was some sibling rivalry – but then we both realised it was a bit dumb. We grew out of it.’

He can afford to be magnanimous because his is the career that has gone through the roof. His parents are also in the film industry – his father is a director, his mother a scriptwriter (she was Oscar nominated for Running on Empty) – but, successful though they are, he has left them behind, too. Meal times at home must be a nightmare. ‘I do get taken down a lot at home. Put in my place. I’m the little brother.’

Thanks to this background, though, he says he is fluent in the language of film, like someone growing up in France is fluent in French. Also he grew up watching his parents go through periods where they were getting awards and enjoying success and then, bang, one bad film and a strange kind of gloom would descend on the household.

His new film won’t be that ‘one bad one’ for him. Rendition is not only thought-provoking and compelling; it also has an ingenious narrative twist which I won’t spoil for you, and which I am not sure I can explain anyway (it is to do with a time shift). Gyllenhaal plays a CIA agent who has to oversee the interrogation and torture of a Muslim terrorist suspect – not in America but in the unnamed country to which the suspect has been flown in what is euphemistically known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. The film explores the moral ambiguities of this policy.

‘You may be torturing an innocent man,’ Gyllenhaal says. ‘On the other hand you may be torturing a guilty man and the information you elicit from him could save the lives of 5,000 innocent civilians.

‘That is the moral dilemma faced by my character in the film. That said, I think for CIA people in those circumstances, moral imperatives do not come into play. They leave that for the philosophers. All they care about is what is working and what isn’t working. Practicality wins over morality. Extraordinary rendition is intended to protect. Sadly, as a policy, it has been over-used and misused.’

Considering what happened to the country singers the Dixie Chicks when they spoke out about the Iraq war, is he worried he is going to get hate-mail accusing him of being treasonous and unpatriotic? ‘I have gotten the usual accusations that this is lefty propaganda. In my opinion I feel like there is not much despargy, dispari, sorry?…’


‘Thank you. That’s going to look good in print: “The guy can’t even say disparity.” I flew in yesterday and my tongue is still on American time. I can see that in America people see this huge disparity between Left and Right, but actually they are more alike than different. If you criticise extraordinary rendition, or Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib, that doesn’t make you a lefty, that makes you a humanitarian.’

Does he feel ashamed to be an American? ‘Well, it’s complicated, isn’t it? There is a lot of fear in America at the moment and some of it is justified. I wouldn’t want to lay it all on one political leader.’

Spoken like a politician, or at least a politically engaged Hollywood actor who campaigned for the Democrats in the 2004 American election, appeared in ‘Rock the Vote’ advertising and is talked about as the next George Clooney, or God forbid, Sean Penn.

It’s not unheard of for an actor to become a politician in America, I note: is that a career move he has considered? ‘I think it is a sad time when actors become politicians and politicians become actors, but actually the two roles do overlap. I don’t want to run for office, though I am an active member of the Civil Liberties Union. I believe in the First Amendment. I believe the right to free speech is inalienable and that we put that freedom in jeopardy when we throw out due process with rendition. Personally, I would say extraordinary rendition is not morally ambiguous. It is wrong.’

I can see the headlines now, I say. ‘Hollywood liberal thinks torture is wrong shock!’ He has the good grace to laugh. ‘You can say I’m in favour of it if you like. That might be quite funny. Say I tried to torture you during the interview. Say Jake was torturing me with his boring comments.’

He adds that he knows how annoying it can be when actors start lecturing people about politics. ‘I don’t think audiences need to know my political beliefs to appreciate this film. Nor do they need to know who I am dating. It’s not important.’

I haven’t asked who he is dating, but since he raised the subject, he did make some intriguingly ambiguous comments about his sexual orientation at the time Brokeback Mountain came out. A broad grin spreads across his face and he covers his head with his hands. ‘I know, I know.’ He is single at the moment. For several years he had an on-off affair with Kirsten Dunst. And yet?…

I quote something he said about homosexuality: ‘I don’t think I’d be afraid of it if it happened.’ What on earth did he mean by that? ‘Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I live in a different world. What I was trying to say was why leave out possibilities in my life? It wasn’t meant to be provocative.’

So let’s get it on the record: is he saying he is open to persuasion? ‘No, I am not open to persuasion myself, but the idea of homosexuality is acceptable to me. I grew up in a city where half the people I know are gay. Both of my godfathers are gay.’

Paul Newman is gay! He laughs again. ‘No, he’s my celebrity godfather.’ What’s a celebrity godfather? ‘That’s the godfather that the media give you. He’s a close friend of my family. He taught me to drive. I have literal godfathers and celebrity godfathers.’

I see. And Jamie Lee Curtis, is she a celebrity godmother or a literal godmother? ‘Both. That’s why it is confusing growing up in Hollywood.’

OK, having established that he is not bisexual, was he being quite calculating when he allowed people to think he was? ‘It was meant as a way of saying it was important for Heath [Ledger, his co-star in Brokeback Mountain] and I to have the movie exist as the movie, but also to have people know it was two straight actors playing those parts.’

I think I follow. The chemistry and tension wouldn’t have worked as well if two gay actors had been playing those roles, and because they were both straight it made their sexual awkwardness more convincing, more like it might be for two cowboys. ‘Exactly. Here are these two lonely people who find themselves through love. Love has no bounds and these two people found a connection in this massive, lonely landscape of Wyoming.’

Presumably he got nasty letters from homophobes.

‘Determining what was nasty and what was nice was always going to be hard for me with that movie. But yes, I got an insight into homophobia that I wouldn’t normally have encountered.’

Given that he first tasted fame as an 11-year-old when he played Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers, how come he didn’t go off the rails in his teens like other child stars, Macaulay Culkin, say, or Drew Barrymore? ‘My parents kept my feet on the ground. They had me turn down roles so that I could concentrate on school work.’

They also made him spend the day of his bar mitzvah volunteering at a homeless shelter so that he would appreciate how privileged he was. And yet he feels he did have to struggle to get his parents’ attention, because they were so immersed in their work. One of the reasons he wanted to act, he says, was to command their interest and ‘be a part of their world’.

Something about Gyllenhaal’s intense yet dreamy and deadpan stare suits him to playing mentally disturbed characters, such as Donnie Darko. And according to Robert Downey Jr, who co-starred with him in the serial killer film Zodiac earlier this year, ‘he’s nice all right, but he’s also wet, dark and wild’.

That darker side emerged during the filming of Jarhead. A playful fight with his co-star Brian Geraghty suddenly became serious. ‘Something happened and I just started hitting Brian,’ he said at the time. On another occasion he was filming a scene in which he was to hold down a fellow actor and throttle him. The choking actor had to hit Gyllenhaal in the face to make him let go. What’s with this aggression? ‘Yeah there is that side. That is a part of me. Part of me would like to know what I would be like in battle. Have my courage tested. Would I be an altruist or a coward? Would I run away or engage? The engaging is what I would want of myself.’

So he feels frustrated? ‘No, I would just love to test myself. I loved the marines. I shaved my head for Jarhead and both my parents were, like, F—! I came back from the boot camp and they were terrified.’

His aggression in that film, he adds, was more about a search for authenticity. ‘I like the process of digging for that truth. I try to pay attention to my emotions during the day, bring them to my work. I have sometimes read in a script that my character cries, but not everyone cries when they are unhappy. That’s not how people always grieve.’

When he experiences genuine emotions in his own life – anger, grief, love – do they feel less authentic because he has had to fake them in films? ‘Hmm. Have I devalued the currency? I tell you, when I fall in love in real life it has felt nothing like I have acted it in the movies.’

Recalling the rumours about him and Reese Witherspoon, his co-star in Rendition, I say: just don’t fall in love with your co-star on screen, eh? ‘Yeah, well?…’ He laughs. ‘I haven’t had many opportunities.’

He must find it difficult persuading women to go to bed with him. ‘I don’t think of myself as good-looking. Not at all. When I was a kid I had these huge glasses. I once went to a fancy dress as a Crest toothpaste tube with these huge glasses stuck on. That is how I see myself most of the time. A Crest toothpaste tube with bad eyesight.’

And on that surreal note, it is time to bid the wet, dark and wild Jake Gyllenhaal goodbye. ‘Be nice to me,’ he says with a grin as he stands up and stretches. ‘Actually, I don’t know why I said that. You can write whatever you like, just spell my name right.’


Irvine Welsh

Thirteen years after writing Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh finds David Cameron ‘attractive’ and admits some of the nicest people he’s ever met have been middle class. Blimey, says Nigel Farndale

As he sits down for lunch, Irvine Welsh places two mobile phones on the table. Noticing me noticing them, he points out, in his lethargic way, that they aren’t meant as symbols of his importance, it’s just that he can’t get a good signal here in London with the one he uses at his house in Dublin.

Having heard him speak, or rather mumble, I would have thought his own signal strength was the real problem. He barely opens his mouth, and the words come out slurred and monotonal.

Edinburgh permeates his every syllable – not genteel, shortbread Edinburgh, but hard, council-flats-and-discarded-needles Edinburgh – even though, since finding fame 13 years ago with his debut novel, Trainspotting, Welsh has divided his time between London, Dublin and San Francisco. But that seems to be the only echo of his former working-class self.

Gone is the pasty pallor of early photographs. Instead, he is tanned, in a flowery shirt, comfortable – perhaps complacently so – in the literary salons of the world. True, his head is still a large lightbulb screwed into his neck, but, at 47, this is more to do with hair loss than his early incarnation as a skinhead.

He raises an eyebrow, a perfect circumflex, and asks if I have read his sixth and latest novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. I have, I have. It is about a hard drinking, sex-addicted young Environmental Health Worker who tries to establish the genetic origins of his crippling compulsions.

The experimental prose style is not for the faint-hearted. What did I think of the scene where the young man has sex with the 85-year-old woman? Strong stuff, I say. He seems a little disappointed. OK, it was disgusting. He grins lopsidedly.

The scene begins with the old woman struggling out of a series of cardigans, pinafores and vests. ‘Lying on the bed, she looked smaller but still monstrous, wrinkled rolls of flab spilling over the mattress…’ Oh, trust me, it is disgusting. Has he included the passage for its shock value?

‘No, for me it comes out of the characters and the situation. And once I’d written it, I couldn’t delete it because it would have felt false.’

But did it shock him, when he re-read it?

‘Not at the time I was writing it, because I was seeing it from a crafting point of view, making it as strong as possible stylistically. But when I read that passage back to an audience in Aberdeen, I realised I was becoming uncomfortable and everyone in the room was becoming ashen-faced. Some started to walk out. I felt the twisted power of it for the first time.’

He is proud of it, clearly, and he can justify it to himself as an intellectual exercise, but does he worry about what kind of a mind can imagine such things; that he might actually be a sick man?

‘It’s weird because I don’t. Maybe I should! Ha ha ha!’ He rocks back in his chair as he sprays the room with a nervy, machine-gun laugh, delivered Popeye-like from the side of his mouth.

‘Maybe that’s part of the lunacy. You need an almost psychotic disengagement from the world to be able to write certain things. You go into a zone, like diving into the centre of the sun and finding it cold. It’s a very selfish, one-dimensional place to be. I become hell to be with when I go there, so I try to limit my journeys.

‘I do sometimes worry about the sick side. I’m not going to go out and axe-murder someone, but it is like being a psychopath because you have no sense of your own self, your own humanity.’

Last summer Irvine Welsh married Beth Quinn, a 25-year-old American student he met when giving a talk to a creative writing class in Chicago. Does he let her read his works in progress?

‘Oh aye.’

Does she ever feel embarrassed by the lurid sex scenes?

‘No. Though she will sometimes kindae look at me and.… He pulls an appalled face. ‘But it’s just for a laugh. She will back out of the room and then I’ll hear the suitcase being pulled off the shelf. “My mother warned me!”‘ He shakes his head. ‘Actually her mother did warn her.’

There was much to warn about. It was Welsh’s second marriage, the first having been contracted during his wilderness years – the 1980s – when he was living in squats, on the dole, being a heroin addict.

To be fair, he was a product of his upbringing. He was born in Leith, the port town which gives Edinburgh its route to the sea. His father worked in the docks there; when he was relocated to a housing estate at Muirhouse, up the coast, he became a carpet salesman.

Irvine left school at 16, without qualifications, to work in a television repair shop. He gave that up to do clerical work for the local council; that and laying paving slabs.

At that stage, Welsh could never have imagined he would become a bestselling author. Novelists were middle-class and well-educated. ‘Back then I didn’ae have ideas above my station,’ he says with a laugh.

‘The idea that working-class people wrote books was absurd in my family. The only books in our house were Catherine Cookson novels passed down via aunties. There was nowhere to put books anyway, no shelving. Besides, I could barely write my name to sign on the dole when I was 21…’

His metamorphosis occurred almost by accident when he discovered one day that he actually enjoyed reading books; not least because they offered him a means of escape. After that he read voraciously and eclectically: Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Salman Rushdie.

Indeed, he become an autodidact, ending up with an MBA: as he says, ‘I’ve gone from one extreme to another.’ Then, in the early 1990s, he found some diaries he had written 10 years earlier, when he was a junkie. They became the inspiration for Trainspotting, a darkly comic account of the Edinburgh heroin culture of the 1980s.

It was subsequently made into a film starring Ewan McGregor as the disreputable but lovable Renton, and Robert Carlyle as the sociopath Begbie. John Carey, Emeritus Professor of English at Oxford University, was among the first to recognise how innovative the novel was.

Other reviewers praised its rawness, authenticity and energy, one calling Welsh ‘The poet laureate of the chemical generation.’ The book sold nearly a million copies and was translated into 30 languages.

In Trainspotting, Renton attempts an unorthodox self-cure for his heroin addiction: he nails up his own door from the inside and sits down with several cans of soup, a blanket and a sick bucket. It was more or less based on Welsh’s own experiences. Most young people who experiment with drugs draw the line at heroin, I suggest. Why had he no fear of trying it?

‘For me, it was stupidity. I didn’t give it any thought. Back then there wasn’t the knowledge about it that there is now. Such drugs education as there was actually encouraged you towards taking it, because your parents and your teachers didn’t know much about drugs.

‘They would tell you: “One puff from a joint of marijuana and that’s you dead.” So once you saw someone smoke it and saw they didn’ae die then you give it a try and you don’t die either.

‘Then it’s like: “If you do one line of speed you’ll die.” Again, not the case, obviously. “Tab of acid. Die.” Not the case. And so next came: “If you shoot up heroin you’re going to die.” They had cried wolf so often I was disinclined to believe them.’

He says that nowadays he has ‘no problem’ with cocaine and ecstasy but that he has come round to the view that long-term cannabis use – by which he means 20 years – can be damaging.

But he is tired of being called upon as an expert witness on drug culture. ‘Even when I was a drug addict I never saw myself as a junkie,’ he says. ‘In the same way it took me a long time to admit I was a writer.’

Was this, I ask, because he thought that there was something fey about writing; not a job for a real man? ‘A bit, but actually I think that is more an English working-class thing than a Scottish working-class thing. In Scotland there was always a manly tradition of subversive writing, expressing yourself in writing. You know, going back to Rabbie Burns.’

Welsh first realised he was a proper writer when he saw a bestseller chart at the time the film of Trainspotting came out. ‘I had more than one book in the Top 10, and I couldn’t believe my name was alongside writers I’d read, like Julian Barnes and Martin Amis.’ Did he still feel an impostor, though? ‘I suppose the others were all middle-class and Oxbridge educated.’

Actually, I suggest, they probably envied his natural way with dialogue, especially his experimental use of phonetically spelt, working-class dialect. Trainspotting, for example, starts with the unforgettable line: ‘The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.’

When the film came out in America, it had to have subtitles. ‘I had given some thought to the plotting and had tried to write it in standard English initially,’ Welsh recalls, ‘but it didn’ae make any sense. It felt sterile and pedestrian. It seemed almost pretentious to do it. The characters wouldn’t talk like that. The humour didn’t work. The engine that drives it is the language.’

All his novels since, which include the bestsellers Filth and Porno, have used the Scottish, expletive-filled vernacular and, as such, they can seem like self-parody, with Welsh, the addled seducer, goosing his passive, middle-class victims. Perhaps it is the curse of creating your own genre.

‘It’s weird to see academic books being published about me,’ Welsh says, taking a sip of red wine. ‘There’s one guy published a book about me for Manchester University Press. Another guy at a Texan university. Just bizarre. I almost, as a survival mechanism, have to dismiss such analysis of my work as hollow. Otherwise I would become self-conscious. Paralysed. You have to trust sales more than critics.’

Spoken like a true capitalist… and on the subject of politics I wonder what Welsh, a hardened socialist by reputation, makes of David Cameron. His answer is not what you would expect.

‘What’s attractive about him, for me, is he is very much another Blair, but without the weariness and baggage. With Cameron, things feel very much like they felt when Blair was coming up to take over from Major. Just as Blair did for socialism so I think Cameron is doing for traditional Toryism, or at least Thatcherism.’

Blimey. This endorsement prompts me to ask whether, in retrospect, Welsh considers that he himself might have been something of a Thatcherite, or at least a product of Thatcher’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps ethos?

‘I’m a product of Thatcherism in many ways,’ Welsh says, tilting back his head, ‘and I’ve benefited from everything I detested. I’ve had to come to terms with it.

‘My whole family background was a socialist one. I didn’t consciously embrace those changes in the 1980s, but they did help me personally. My dislike of Thatcherism is very much a class-based thing. I really had a problem with the middle and upper class.

‘Basically, I thought how can a Tory be nice? Now, some of the nicest people I have met have been middle and upper-middle class and some of them, I suppose, must be Tories.’

Blimey again. But actually there is an almost yuppy brashness to Irvine Welsh. He is not shy about telling you how in demand he is at the moment. ‘I’m planning to buy a place in California,’ he says, ‘because I need to have light all year round. I have so much work lined up at the moment, I’m going to have to have more hours in the day, you see.’

Part of his new novel, a Jekyll and Hyde parable, is set in San Francisco. It includes a line about how, when the Scottish anti-hero is in San Francisco, he wishes he were in Edinburgh, and when in Edinburgh he wishes he were in San Francisco. That has to be autobiographical; does Welsh ever feel settled anywhere?

‘I always feel that the big party is somewhere else,’ he says, scratching his blobby nose. ‘I’ve been spoiled because I’ve got the kind of job where you can write from anywhere and I have the money to live anywhere. I don’t mean this in a “poor me” sense, but sometimes opportunity and choice can cost you because you are always thinking: “I wonder if I would be better off somewhere else?”

‘Sometimes I think I should become a proper writer and have a study overlooking the sea and write big historical novels.’

But maybe, I suggest, he needs to feel ill at ease with his surroundings, to give his writing a sheen of underclass edginess after all those years of material comfort. ‘Yes, when I write I have music blaring, or I sit in cafes, or on the Tube with my laptop and people banging into me.’

Frankly, it shows, at least in his latest novel. But Welsh seems to think this is a good thing: ‘I like the commotion. I’ll go around the Circle Line five times and then, 10,000 words later, I will look up and realise I haven’t seen a single thing going on around me.

‘It’s always good when I write like that. You’re in the pace of real life. I know if I am distracted by people, it’s not working.’ He splays his fingers out on the table – a demonstration. ‘When I’m in the mood I bang really hard on my keys. I do actually go through keyboards.’

It is a romantic idea, the novelist as lost soul wandering the earth, never feeling at home, only able to find his muse on a Tube going round and round, but never arriving. Maybe if he had children he would feel more settled.

‘I think it would affect me as a writer. I would worry that they would read what I was writing. It would make me self-conscious. You know, I’d have to tell them: “Don’t you dare read those disgusting books!”‘

He isn’t even open to the idea of children: ‘Not really. I’ve gone through that phase in my life. I always felt I was too young to have kids and now I feel I am too old. There was about 10 minutes in between and I missed it. My wife is a lot younger than me so it is not entirely going to be my decision.

‘I’d hate to be the weird old guy at the school gates picking up the kids. You know: “Who’s that weirdo?”‘

Isn’t he used to that? ‘Yes I am, aye,’ he says with his clattering, Popeye laugh. ‘I’ve always been thought a weirdo.’


Imran Khan

Sitting in Jemima Khan’s Chelsea house, Imran Khan talks to Nigel Farndale about the 60th anniversary of Partition, the 7/7 bombers and the war on terror.

Sixty years ago this week, a British lawyer drew a line across a map and created a country, Pakistan. Nearly a million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were killed in the civil unrest that followed. In a broader sense, it could be argued, the world is still living with the consequences. Certainly, Britain’s relationship with this increasingly fundamentalist Muslim state has become uneasy in recent years: almost all Islamists charged with terrorism here have had links there.

But a strong bond also exists between the two countries, and no one symbolises it better than Imran Khan, the cricket legend and playboy turned politician. Not only was he educated here, at Oxford, but his ex-wife, Jemima, the daughter of the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, is British. Although he lives in Pakistan, he visits England regularly, partly because he is the chancellor of Bradford University, partly to see his two sons, Sulaiman, 10, and Qasim, seven.

His dress code reflects this dual life. Today, as he sits on a sofa in Jemima Khan’s house in Chelsea, framed by panther prints and oriental mirrors, he is looking lean and urbane in a silk tie and black suit. In Pakistan he wears traditional Muslim dress, the shalwar-kameez. He seems as good a person as any to ask what it all means, this anniversary of Partition.

Before I can, Sulaiman and Qasim distract me, starting to play cricket with a windball in the long kitchen-cum-dining-room behind us. They look useful, so perhaps this is the place to start. Who would Khan like them to play for, England or Pakistan?

“Well it’s early days but, of course, I would love them to play for Pakistan. I would like them to live with me in Pakistan, too. But that will be their choice in later life. At the moment, they are with their mother. They are being raised as Muslims. They are bicultural. The boys spend their holidays with me.”

Khan says he takes their bedtime stories from the Koran. “Always, always. And much to my ex-wife’s consternation, I still sleep with them in my bed. A favourite thing is talking to them in bed until we fall asleep, all three of us. The moral stories my mother used to tell me in bed have stayed with me all my life and I want it to be the same for the boys. Right and wrong, stories from the Koran. They are part of their identity.”

Which brings us to the anniversary.

“Pakistan had a traumatic birth because the British left in such haste,” Khan says in a low and measured voice. “Most of us blamed Mountbatten. He rushed it. As a result, the Kashmiri question wasn’t resolved and there has been animosity with our neighbour India ever since.

“Another result was that the state became obsessed with its own survival. Security became the first priority. The emphasis was on armed forces. That was where the arms race began: the race to get nuclear weapons.

“And we became a client state, relying on US aid, rather than being non-aligned like India. It left us with the problem of militancy. The mujahideen, on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan, was actually trained by the CIA during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan said the mujahideen leaders reminded him of the Founding Fathers of America. Now America calls them terrorists.

“The legacy of all this is the war on terror, which many in Pakistan see as a war on Islam, that is why there is no shortage of recruits there.”

I suggest that many in the West cannot understand why Pakistan cannot hunt down the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters hiding on its border. Khan sighs. “No one in the West understands that the tribal region of Pakistan has always been an independent entity. They have never been conquered. Every man is a warrior and carries a gun. It is the most difficult terrain. Even a superpower like the British Empire could not control that area. They had to bribe the tribes. To think that Pakistan’s army, which begs and borrows for its survival, could control it is naive.”

What about the posters of bin Laden everywhere on display there, couldn’t they at least be taken down?

“They would go back up, because it is like a football match. Either you are on one side or the other. Once the Pakistan army started this operation at the behest of the US, the whole border area rose up against them. And the US has bombed the area killing many tribesmen – so anyone who opposes the US becomes a hero.

“That is where the war on terror has been so misguided. It has benefited the people who caused 9/11. And it has made Musharraf look even more like a puppet of America.”

I ask what he makes of the fact that the July 7 suicide bombers were all British Muslims who had become radicalised after visits to Pakistan.

“People don’t understand that this war on terror is not a religious issue, it is a political issue,” he says. “I heard John Reid lecturing Pakistani families, telling mothers not to allow their children to get radicalised in mosques. That is the most bizarre thing. It’s like this Cambridge conference of moderate Muslims – there is no point to it. They are not going to have any impact. A Muslim is a Muslim: the terms extremist and moderate apply only to a man’s political views, not to his religious beliefs.”

But Khan does have a theory as to why British Muslims become radicalised in this country.

“The impression I get from talking to British Muslims is that the problem of radicalisation in Britain is a lot to do with Islamophobia. They think it is increasing and is tinged with racism. In those areas in the north of England where Islamophobia and racism is worse, that is where there is more likelihood of Muslims joining a radical Islamic movement. It has compounded the problem. That is what makes it different from the radicalisation that goes on in Pakistan.”

As a former Pakistan captain – and, with 3,807 Test runs and 362 Test wickets, one of the finest all-rounders the game has ever known – Khan understands better than most how important cricket is to the Pakistani sense of identity. Last year, the pitch invasion at Headingley by British-born Pakistani fans was seen by some as a graphic illustration of the Tebbit test. Is that how Khan saw it?

“Ah yes,” he says with a gentle laugh, “the Tebbit test. How bizarre. But should Scotsmen support England? What about British-born Jews who feel upset when Israel is attacked? Sometimes people have these affiliations, they are not something to be worried about. After a period of time, these affiliations weaken and you feel more like a member of a society. But if you keep going on about it and talking about the cricket test, you push people back to their origins. Pakistanis who grow up in the US are much more assimilated.”

I wonder whether his countrymen frown upon the way he assimilates whenever he is visiting Britain.

“Not really. I have been branded as being part of a Jewish lobby, and Musharraf has accused me of aligning myself with fundamentalists because I voted against him. They don’t know how to place me.”

By Jewish lobby he means Jemima, presumably?


Did his marriage compromise his political career?

“They would have found some other issue to hit me with if it hadn’t been that. They couldn’t attack me for being corrupt, so they attacked me through Jemima saying she was part of the Zionist conspiracy because her father was a Jewish multi-millionaire. It put a strain on our marriage – and a cross-cultural marriage was never going to be easy anyway.”

Divorced in 2004, after nine years of marriage, Jemima and Imran remain on good terms. He hated the divorce.

“The last thing I wanted was for my boys to grow up without me.”

Another strain was his political ambition. He is praised for his work for the poor. He founded a £12 million cancer hospital in Lahore, and plans a second hospital and a university. But he is mocked for having groupies (many female) more than a party machine. He is the leader of the moderate Pakistan Justice Party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf, whose profile has risen amid all the recent political instability and the rumours that President Musharraf is on the verge of declaring a state of emergency.

Khan has been meeting Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister now in exile in London. With Benazir Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan’s People’s Party, they are calling for an end to the “dictatorship” of President Musharraf before next year’s general election. Khan says he has never doubted that he will one day lead his country.

“I am ready to become a power in Pakistani politics, not necessarily in power. I only want to be in power if I have a clear majority. Both elections I have fought I had an easy option of joining the established government. But I wouldn’t want to be in a coalition because you have to compromise too much. Musharraf said he would like me as his prime minister. But if you are serious about politics you cannot be associated with corruption or a military dictator.”

But Pakistan is still a democracy, isn’t it? “No, you can’t call Pakistan a democracy. Actually, it is worse than an out-and-out dictatorship because this dictator tries to legitimise himself by dismantling state institutions, like an independent powerful judiciary and an election commission – he has to rig the election – he introduced a controlled assembly, prime minister and media. But a country needs these institutions to function properly. You can’t have one man running a country.

“I want Pakistan to be a welfare state and a genuine democracy with a rule of law and an independent judiciary. To implement this agenda you have to take on all the vested interests that want to stop it happening. You make enemies. I have enemies in Pakistan.”

It is time for him to fly back there. He says goodbye to his boys – with big hugs and fond ruffles of their hair – and we talk in the car to the airport. “Saying goodbye to the boys is the hardest part,” he says, subdued. “I miss them so much when I’m not with them.”


Ian Hislop

Ian Hislop talks to Nigel Farndale about conscientious objectors, muscular Christianity, and whether Ross and Brand have any connection to ‘edgy’ comedy

When there are no cameras around, Ian Hislop wears black-rimmed glasses rather than contact lenses. And in between series of Have I Got News For You he sometimes grows a full-set beard – Naval in style and grey in colour. There is a difference, then, between his public and private identity.

There is also a connection, symbolised by the poppy he wears in the lapel of his pinstriped suit as he sits behind his cluttered desk at the Private Eye office in Soho. Though he is best known as a satirist, he has a serious side. He makes documentaries about the First World War. When he wears a poppy it is not in a spirit of post-modern irony, it is with pride.

Today, as on most Sundays, you will find Hislop in his local church in Sissinghurst, Kent.

“They do a traditional Remembrance Day service,” he says. “Reading out the names of villagers who were killed in the Great War. Laying wreathes. I find it incredibly moving. You can’t understand Twenties England until you appreciate it was under a cloud of mourning. Nearly everyone was grieving.”

It is history that has become the abiding passion of Hislop’s middle years (he’s 48). Tomorrow the latest episode of Not Forgotten, his poignant and understated series looking at the stories behind the names on First World War memorials, is about the Conscientious Objectors, or “conchies” as they were popularly – but not affectionately – known. Often Methodists or Quakers, they took the commandment Thou Shall Not Kill to mean Thou Shall Not Kill Ever, Under Any Circumstances.

Ninety years on, Hislop asks whether these conchies were “cowards and shirkers” or whether they were courageous in their refusal to fight. “Some 16,000 men applied for exemption when conscription was introduced in 1916,” he says.

“Most of the ones trying it on soon gave it up. They went before a tribunal where they would be asked: ‘What would you do if a German was going to kill your mother?’ Most buckled at that point and enlisted. The ones who held out despite the intimidation were incredibly brave in their way. Their single-mindedness was extraordinary.”

One of the leading conchies was a lay preacher who asked in a sermon “Would Jesus bayonet a German?” The congregation took the view that, on balance, he probably would. The religious aspect intrigued Hislop because his grandfather, who fought at Passchendaele, was a Presbyterian lay preacher who believed in the Augustine idea of justifiable wars.

“The C of E wasn’t the limp and liberal institution it is today,” he says. “It was much more muscular. Some of the sermons by the likes of Bishop Winnington-Ingram were blood-curdling. I found a sermon my grandfather gave after the war and it was clear that he believed it was his Christian duty to fight. It had been a testing moment for him to go over the top. He had been tried and, to his relief, had not been found wanting. I can imagine his attitude to the conchies would have fallen short of admiration.”

We reflect upon Samuel Johnson’s line that every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier. “Men of our generation feel that keenly. We have not had to test our courage and prove ourselves as men.”

He imagines that, as a young man in 1914, he’d have taken the King’s shilling. “I’d have been in the rush of public schoolboys who felt they had to. What I hadn’t appreciated until now is that there are other ways to test your courage. When the conchies were being knocked around in a cell, the easy thing would have been to give in.”

In one case conscientious objection meant two brothers being ostracised by their father, a lieutenant colonel. Father-son relationships are the core of male identity in war, Hislop reckons. Famously, Kipling nearly died from grief after the son he encouraged to join up was killed in action. Hislop took his son and daughter to where their great-grandfather fought in Flanders – something he couldn’t do with his own father, a civil engineer, who died of cancer when Hislop was 12.

I ask who his role models were in his father’s absence. “I had a wonderful English teacher who became a friend. Probably he fulfilled that role. And the old blokes at the Eye are my substitute fathers: Ingrams, Booker, Fantoni. I like making films about old people because they are repositories of amazing stories that they tell well. And they’re incredibly good telly.” Pause. “Which no one else thinks!”

He doesn’t have many memories of his father. What would he ask him if he walked through the door right now? “Oh, everything really. Someone wrote to me who had seen my father open a swimming pool in Saudi. He cut the ribbon and then dived in in his suit and sunglasses. I was also shown a photograph of him leading a conga at the Hilton in Hong Kong. When I saw that I thought: ‘This I didn’t know about you.’ I have my own son now and it makes you realise what you lost and what you can give back.”

What sort of values does he want his son to have? “At the moment there is a Ross and Brand culture of not growing up to be a man, of remaining a lad into your 50s. That would have been alien to our grandfathers’ generation. They wanted to join the world. They weren’t afraid of being judgmental. That’s what I’d like to encourage in my son.”

An editor of Private Eye encouraging his son to be judgmental: who’d have thought it? “I know, can you imagine? You can’t run a paper like this unless you accept that there are moral differences.”

Tellingly, what Hislop admires most about the conchies was their moral certitude, the way they saw the world in black and white terms. He does that, too. And in doing so he sets himself up to be judged by others. “I know. It makes you a prude and a smug moralist. Ghastly.”

It usually falls to Hislop to take to task the rogues they occasionally have on Have I Got News For You. One such was Piers Morgan, then editor of The Mirror. Morgan was so aggrieved he ordered his reporters to dig up dirt on Hislop. They couldn’t find any.

Are we to assume that Hislop is whiter than white, then? “I remember [Richard] Ingrams saying to me when I became editor of the Eye: ‘It is incumbent on you not to shag the secretaries or put your hand in the till’. I took that to heart.”

Hislop is well-placed to comment on the Brand/Ross debacle, being a BBC man involved in what can be an edgy comedy programme. Come on, I say, be judgmental. He rolls his eyes. “This episode has forced everyone to question what being edgy actually means. I think it should mean making points that people don’t necessarily agree with, or want to hear, but doing it in a way that makes them think. What Ross and Brand did does not strike me as edgy. The best comedy is where you attack the strong, not the weak.”

To get the measure of Ian Hislop, you need look no further than the magazine he edits: part funny, part serious, highly judgmental and quite moralistic. For his own part he describes himself as “easily bored”.

And, according to his friend and colleague Francis Wheen, he is more sentimental and tactile than you would imagine. “But the most decadent thing I’ve seen Ian do is fall asleep at the table without taking his contact lenses out.”


Grayson Perry

As he unveils his biggest exhibition yet, the ‘transvestite potter’ seems set to join the art world’s big beasts. But will his ladylike alter ego and childhood teddy bear be joining him?

Being an accommodating man, Grayson Perry has asked if we – that is, the photographer and me – would like him as Claire or as himself. Actually, it was someone from his gallery who asked on his behalf, but still, it is an intriguing distinction, one that I will try to unravel here. He is far from consistent on the subject.

For now, though, it would be as well to remind ourselves, as if we could forget, that not only is 51-year-old Perry a “conceptual artist who works as a craftsman” (his definition) but he is also a transvestite, and that when he dresses as a woman it tends to be as one who wouldn’t look out of place in a pantomime. Indeed, when he won the Turner Prize for his ceramics in 2003, he was wearing a Little Bo Peep outfit. “It’s about time a transvestite potter won this prize,” he quipped.

His pointed sense of humour is one of his defining characteristics, and it runs through his work like the seam of gilt he put in one of his vases to make it obvious it had been broken and repaired (because that was what the ancient Orientals used to do, making a feature of the repair).

We have opted for “as himself” today, which means he is wearing red trousers, pumps and a linen jacket, and his unribboned blond curls reach down to his collar. He has poured himself a coffee, peeled a banana and taken a single bite from it, but the rest of it remains in his hand, which is poised on his knee as if he were an Edwardian posing for a tableau vivant.

We are meeting in the director’s dining room at the British Museum where, from this week until mid February, there will be a major exhibition of his work. And when you approach the columned entrance of the museum and see a long banner announcing it, you do realise what a big name, literally and figuratively, Grayson Perry has become.

Must put a spring in his step when he sees that, I say. “First time I have seen it, actually. But yeah, the big banner outside the British Museum feels pretty good. Oooh!” He talks quickly and fluently in a resonant voice, and though you wouldn’t necessarily work out straight away that he was born and raised in Essex, there are still some traces of the county in his accent.

His exhibition is called Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and it features his own work alongside objects he has selected from the eight million on display here. The “unknown” in the title seems to be, well, rather knowing on his part, because he himself is far from anonymous as an artist and craftsman.

In the past he’s described Claire as an “alter ego”. Is that still the case?

“I might have done in the past, in my naive pre-therapy days, before I became fully merged. There’s no part of my personality I hive off any more. I’m fully integrated. It’s not an alter ego, it’s a fetish. It’s just me in a frock.”

I ask whether, when he first started cross-dressing in public, the thrill was in passing himself off as a woman. “I never got into dressing as a woman to deceive anyone, so I thought why not embrace it openly? I wanted to say ‘I am Grayson in a dress, deal with it’. There are some trannies who are happy to blend in. If you’re a bank manager, you probably won’t be able to express your transvestism in the same way as an artist can.”

His attitude seems to be that he acknowledges there is something inherently funny about wanting to dress up as a member of the opposite sex, so you may as well be in on the joke and take it further, in his case with baby doll dresses and bonnets. Ritualised humiliation seems to be part of the appeal, too. Can he imagine reaching an age when he will no longer feel the inclination to dress up? “I don’t know. I’ve met trannies who were in their nineties and they said their libidos went years ago. There is a psychological element to it as well as a sexual one, you see.”

Although he has said that his love of pottery may be connected to having to wear a tight rubber smock during his first pottery lesson at school – he became excited by the sensation, broadly speaking – he seems to regard his transvestism as coincidental to his art. But has it, in fact, helped his career? “It hasn’t hurt. It’s a part of me; therefore it must have contributed to my success. In the crowded cultural landscape, it doesn’t hurt to be known for something different.”

He may now deny that Claire is an alter ego, but when he puts a dress on, does he find himself stepping into a character, a public persona that is different to his private one? “I never really use the name any more. I kind of regret it because it came out of me being in a transvestite society when I was younger and they insisted on a fem name for anonymity. If I started in my forties, I would have said ‘call me Grayson’.”

If he were dressed as Claire today, would there be no difference? “I might sit nicer!” He gives an unexpectedly raucous laugh that makes me jump. “Wouldn’t be so casual! I do sit and walk a little more ladylike when I’m dressed up. It’s appropriate to the look.” He says he’s learnt to avoid the places where his appearance might lead to trouble. But can he handle himself? “Never had a fight.” I ask this because his stepfather was an amateur wrestler. Was he a violent man? “He could be very frightening. That sort of person would be someone I would avoid. I still have a reaction to machismo.”

His biological father was a “manly man” too, an engineer who rode motorbikes. “Motorbikes aren’t manly,” he says. “Look at mine.” True, his is pink and turquoise. “If a bloke has to prove his machismo with a motorbike, then he isn’t very macho.” The motorbike and his father, with whom he has little contact, are integral to understanding his new work. They are linked by Alan Measles, his childhood teddy bear, who features heavily in the new exhibition. Perry recently toured Bavaria on his motorbike accompanied by Alan Measles, who sat in a specially constructed shrine on the back. It was, the artist said, a mission of reconciliation with their old enemies, the Germans. In his solitary and unhappy childhood, you see, Perry imagined Alan as a heroic member of the French resistance.

He was also an unbeaten racing driver, and a fighter pilot. He has now taken on the role of a “personal God” and “the embodiment of everything that is good about masculinity”. In the exhibition catalogue, Perry describes Alan as “the benign dictator of my fantasy worlds. He was my prime candidate for deification and I set about making works that celebrated his heroism.”

Presumably, by giving a teddy bear all these manly characteristics, his intention was to mock them? “No, in my childhood, Alan was a transference mechanism to help me survive emotionally. I needed a reassuring male figure, so I constructed it.” But why not project on to an Action Man? “Well, I’m sure there are kids who have done it with an Action Man, but for me it happened to be my teddy bear. I never wanted to be in someone else’s imagination. Teddies are universal. They don’t have distinctive characteristics. That’s why he’s like a god.”

People project on to God what they would like Him to be. Alan struggles with the whole business of religion. There is a piece in the show called Hold Your Beliefs Lightly in which Alan says to the world’s religions: “Calm down, dear, it’s only a belief system.’’ What Alan Measles is most, as Perry discovered when he had therapy, is a surrogate father. He is also his male psyche. Indeed, on one of Perry’s vases there is a scene in which Claire is marrying Alan. “Many problems in society come from an imbalance in the way these two sides of our personality are dealt with,” he has written.

Perry’s wife Philippa is a psychotherapist and they have a 19-year-old daughter, Florence. He denies that he gets free sessions, although “We talk about therapy all the time… there are still a lot of people who are suspicious about it because people see it as a fluffy, middle-class indulgence. I think it will become more popular in the future because it is a b——-free zone. Therapists tell it like it is. They peel back layers.” In conversation, he often seems to refer to emotions. And as much as anything, his new exhibition seems to be an exploration of public emotion.

The Unknown Craftsman is, of course, a reference to the Unknown Soldier who became the focus for national grief after the First World War. “I found it very moving reading up about the Unknown Soldier,” he says, “because public displays of emotion intrigue me. I found the Diana funeral moving in a way a lot of middle-class commentators dismissed. Yucky working-class people being vulgar and emotional.” Would he say he’s now part of the art establishment? “No. There is an art elite which meets in Venice and it is partly a class thing because they prefer intellectual difficulty to emotional. They sneer at anything accessible because they think accessibility means dumb.”

Perry has broad appeal and I think it’s because people find him accessible, engaging and witty. “I’m sure there are people in the art world who struggle to like me because they have an academic, insular version of art. Difficult art is collected by galleries rather than individual patrons and it’s a kind of closed system. The public aren’t paying for it and their attention isn’t sought. The elites don’t realise they are a little village.” Is there rivalry between the big beasts, by which I mean him, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George and the Chapman brothers?

“I’m the littlest of the big beasts. They make miles more money than me. Wish I had their money. I don’t do enough work and don’t have a big team of assistants. This exhibition is two years’ work for me. They make the kind of work that they are happy to see expanded and out of their control.” Me-ow! Is there rivalry, though? “I’m glad to meet any of them. We have things that we like and we don’t like about each other’s work. It would be weird if we didn’t. We’re not treading on each other’s toes.” He adds that his ambition is “to make art that is happy and accessible and decorative. The idea that art has to be difficult and solemn is not very English. And I’m very English.”

It is telling that he refers disparagingly to “the middle classes” as if they are not his tribe, when clearly they now are. He listens to Radio 4 all day when he’s working in his studio, for goodness sake. But, for all this, there is something endearingly, and perhaps surprisingly, unpretentious about Perry. The interview done, and the banana now eaten, we wander over to where the exhibition is being constructed. He hasn’t made an appointment to visit the site and the security guard is not convinced he is who he says he is. How much easier it would have been if he had come as Claire.


Gillian Anderson

Forget the ‘X-Files’: Gillian Anderson, one-time ‘world’s sexiest woman’, is about to tackle Ibsen in a new West End production of ‘A Doll’s House’

The first surprise is Gillian Anderson’s accent. I have heard about how she can slip from English to American as effortlessly as silk runs through fingers. Indeed, by way of research, I have watched her being interviewed by Jay Leno (for whom she adopted an American accent) and Michael Parkinson (an English one). I even know how and why she does this – she lived here until she was 11, moved there until she was 35, then, five years ago, came back to live here. Still, nothing quite prepares you for sitting opposite FBI Special Agent Scully and hearing the head girl of Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

The second surprise is how insouciant and unguarded she is. She has a light and breathy laugh, more a catch in her voice, and a friendly and confiding manner, again in contrast to the humourless and sceptical Scully. This guilelessness is also unexpected because her relationship with the press has not always been cordial – the paparazzi in LA used to ram into her car deliberately so as she would have to get out and exchange insurance details. Yet here she is sitting in a London bar at eight o’clock at night telling me about where her 14-year-old daughter goes to school, how she has been enjoying taking the bus to rehearsals for her new play and, well, how she had to cajole her partner into having sex with her. No, really.

Also, I ought to describe her. She is much shorter than you imagine, 5ft 3in, and yet not short looking – in proportion, I mean. She has slightly sad, downturned eyes, a mole above her puffy top lip (one that they used to cover up on The X-Files) and a tattoo on the inner part of her wrist, Asian lettering that is something to do with yoga. With her long, blonde hair tumbling down against her black top (she is also wearing a black skirt and black calf-length boots which she tucks under herself as she sits) she looks immaculate – half a pint of velvety Guinness.

You would not guess she was a 40 year-old with three children, the youngest six months old. And yet she says other mothers in the park aren’t intimidated by her appearance so much as appalled at how scruffy she is. ‘They look at me like, “Doesn’t she have mirrors in her house?”’ Yeah, right. I should say something about her work, too, or rather her reinvention from the glamorous star of a hugely popular and long-running TV show about alien abduction to a highly respected stage and film actress. Although she returned to TV for her Bafta-nominated performance in the BBC’s Bleak House (and, if the rumours are true, will do so again as a villain in Doctor Who), she has also been discriminating in her choice of film roles, favouring the intelligent and stylish, such as A Cock and Bull Story and The Last King of Scotland, over the commercial (even if she did manage to slip in an X-Files movie last year).

The rehearsals, by the way, are for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a new version that opens at the Donmar Warehouse later this month. Anderson plays the lead, Nora; a woman who leaves her husband and children after having her feminist consciousness raised (when first performed in 1879 it caused a great scandal). While Anderson cannot empathise with that aspect of the play, she says she does appreciate the feminist arguments and understands the emotional journey Nora takes. Also she does know what it is like to be patronised and objectified by men (as Nora is in her Doll’s House) and she knows, too, all about the responsibilities of motherhood.

Her first child was with her first husband. She divorced him, married someone else and divorced that one 16 months later. Her two youngest children are with her partner, the British businessman Mark Griffiths (he made his fortune working in the private parking and wheel-clamping business). Earlier tonight she was having a battle of wills with her two-and-a-half-year-old son Oscar, who didn’t want to eat his supper. And thanks to her six-month-old son Felix, she was, as usual, up at 5.30am this morning.

‘He wakes three times in the night and once I’ve settled him, it is more or less time to get breakfast ready for Oscar. I used to do yoga a lot but I don’t seem to have time anymore. You would think that I could work in an hour somewhere, but I can’t. I don’t want to eat into the time I spend with the children. Then I have to be out of the house by 9.15 to get to rehearsals for 10.’ A pause. ‘When I start work on a play I do behave as if I’m about to fall off the side of earth. Sometimes my heart stops. It’s absolutely terrifying. It’s a big play and I’m in every scene but one.’

She keeps her energy levels up by taking a nap at lunchtime, she says. ‘I used to find it impossible to sleep during the day but… I’ve never done a play with little ones before. I did film very soon after my first child, 10 days, after a c-section, five days after coming home from the hospital. It seems crazy but at the time I thought, “OK this is my penance for having got pregnant when they had invested so much in the show and me”.’

That was in 1994 when The X-Files had only just completed its first season. She thinks if it hadn’t been for the chemistry between her and her co-star David Duchovny (who played Agent Mulder) she would have been sacked. ‘They would have loved to have punished me but they realised there was steam picking up. I thought they were overreacting but now I see it from their perspective. I would have been bloody p—ed if I had been them and had cast a girl, against my better judgement, who got pregnant after the first season.’

They got the green light for the play a year last February. ‘I had decided I wanted to get pregnant in February… oh my God, I’d forgotten about this! I’d just got back from India and was going straight into filming The X-Files movie. I knew that I wanted to have the baby at a certain time because there was another film I wanted to do after that. Yeah, so the perfect time was February and…’ She puts her hand over her mouth. ‘I was bloody lucky, but I was also determined because I didn’t want to be too nauseous by the time we had finished filming The X-Files. And I’d worked out the amount of time it took me to get big last time.’

So she’s not a control freak then. ‘Oh dear, I am aren’t I?’ She laughs. ‘The first two weren’t planned.’

Did she and her partner synchronise diaries for when she was ovulating? ‘Not quite, but it is hard work when you decide to plan it. It can get very unromantic, especially when you are working 16-hour days. You get home at 3am and say, “OK, we have to do it now.” “But it’s three o’clock in the morning!” Then when you wake up it’s: “What? Again? Before I go to work? Oh no”.’

Having had a peripatetic childhood herself, with all the insecurities that come with that, does she worry about her children having the same? ‘I moved a lot for university and work. But I never thought it was a negative thing. I thought how lucky I was to have had formative years growing up in London. A lot of Americans never set foot outside America. It can be an inward-looking country.’

Gillian Anderson was born in Chicago and, on balance, she feels more American than British. ‘But even on the phone my accent will change. Part of me wishes I could control it, but I can’t. I just slip into one or the other. When I moved to the States I tried hard to cling on to my British accent because it made me different.’

But presumably by then she was getting noticed for her looks? Wasn’t that difference enough? ‘Not in my teens. I was either a nerd or… I never thought about clothes until I was 15, when I dyed my hair and wore pointy red shoes to be different. I was never the pretty girl. I was always somewhere at the back.’

So when did she start to feel confident about her looks? ‘It took until the sixth season of The X-Files, when a new hair person came on and said, “Are you sure you want to look like that?” and I said, “What’s wrong with it?” She said I think we need to straighten your hair, you look dowdy. The pastel suits. The plaid suits, the horrible hairstyles. It had never occurred to me. To go from that to the cover of magazines made no sense to me. In my twenties and thirties I just kept thinking “I am really pulling the wool over people’s eyes. When am I going to be found out? I’m not good enough”. All that self-depreciating stuff. I remember a cover shoot for Jane magazine, feeling such low self-esteem, so much self criticism that I wasn’t able to get out of myself and join in. Last year I came across that photo shoot and saw this really pretty young girl with short hair who was toned and thin and I know I was thinking I was too fat at the time, tormenting myself. And yet there were these lovely pictures. I thought “how much time have I wasted in my life beating myself up about how I look?”’

In 1996, she did a cover shoot for FHM which proved to be something of a landmark in the lad’s mag market. The editor came up with the idea of having a cerebral woman posing provocatively on the cover. Sales broke all records and the approach has been much imitated since. When I tell her about this ‘Gillian Anderson factor’ it is news to her. ‘Really? But now I’m 40 that is nice to hear. I remember doing that first interview for FHM – I was in Vancouver wearing flannel pyjamas with cowboys on them. My hair was messy and I didn’t feel sexy at all. I felt exhausted, my daughter was downstairs and there I was being told I was a sex object. I laughed out loud. It’s an odd one. I can see the funny side of it now but part of me, the feminist side, did worry about how I could justify it.

‘In my younger years I was very naïve. I did a lot of shoots. I probably shouldn’t have because they were embarrassing or in bad taste. It took me a long time to be able to step back and say “that didn’t feel right inside. I didn’t realise I had the choice”.’ The year of that first FHM shoot the magazine’s readers voted her ‘World’s Sexiest Woman’. But this also led to insecurity and a need for reassurance. ‘I was always being asked why I got that job? Fox Television wanted a buxom, leggy blonde and they got me. I never thought about it till this minute, but it must have added to this feeling of being found out.’

I ask about the time she dug her heels in when she discovered the salary of her male co-star on The X-Files was twice hers. ‘It made sense at the beginning because he had been cast first and had a body of work already whereas I was plucked from obscurity. Also I was being paid more money than my parents or I had ever seen in our lives. [Her father worked in the film industry on the production and editing side.] So I felt very lucky, then after three years I was like, “Know what? This isn’t working for me anymore”. I made a stand and the gap in our pay closed. Was it sexism? Maybe. It’s like the way we were directed by the studios, I was to walk behind him, never side by side. I mean, that is f—ing priceless when I think about it now. When we would get out the car and walk towards the house I would have to be behind him, even though I had equal dialogue.’

She also says now that she feels she didn’t allow herself to enjoy her fame as much as she should have done. ‘For the first five years of the series we were up filming in Vancouver and I was hardly ever in LA. I didn’t really know anyone. The first year, I married a Canadian and had a child. If things had happened differently I might have gone to the fashionable parties in LA, might have ended up with a different life. But I didn’t, I ended up with a responsible life very quickly, and my only priority when I wasn’t working was to make time to be with my child. I got hugely controlling and hugely anal. All my spare time was spent either exercising, painting our house, or being with my child.’

Was the time she spent with her daughter relaxing? ‘No, it was pretty intense. Whenever we were together my brain was going at a thousand miles an hour in other directions. It trained me to be vigilant with my down time. I still have a hard time with it… Everyone in my life…’ She trails off. ‘It’s a joke. I have to work hard to be relaxed.’

Might there be aspects of her character that would make her difficult to live with, even if it weren’t for the demands of her work? ‘Oh, oh I see, I’m sure, yes, I can’t pin it all on work, yeah, I could make a huge list of things that make me difficult to live with.’

She has described herself as an angry teenager, one who pierced her nose, had a Mohican haircut, and was voted ‘Most Likely To Be Arrested’ by her classmates at high school. It was prompted by the move back to the US, which left her feeling lonely and the odd one out. It also created an abiding sense of impermanence, as though nothing in life was dependable. She began seeing a therapist around that time and has continued seeing them off and on all her life. ‘Yeah I still see a therapist. Not as regularly as I used to, but yeah. I find it essential to have someone out there who is not interested in saying the right thing, someone who is blunt and honest with me about their perception of my behaviour. Otherwise I’d just rely on my own opinion of myself, or what my partner said, and that would be too close to home, especially if he said things that were painful to hear.’

She thinks her anxieties are rooted in her childhood. ‘There are patterns in my life, aspects of my personality that are still there and were there as a child, my mother always said I was single-minded. There was no compromise with me, she felt powerless as a parent.’

Meaning? ‘I don’t think I ever needed parental approval. I want to do this NOW and I am going to do it. My mum says she didn’t know where I got this attitude from, this idea that I could do anything I set my mind to. Now I am more aware of my own fallibility. When I was 16 I directed a play and I wanted to do everything, from the lighting to designing the programme. Now I have taken a play on and I am scared s—less. I tell myself everything will be OK then my brain will start asking “but what if it’s not OK? What if you go blank on stage? After all, I am 40. Will the lines still be there? What if my memory goes?” I have anxiety dreams where I show up for the first night of a play and I haven’t been at any of the rehearsals. I feel like I’m not prepared enough.’

Blimey. But fair enough. She has experienced panic attacks during performances, and once nearly had to walk off the stage at the Royal Court. Yet she seems to be drawn to that which frightens her the most. Rather daffily, she now hunts around for some wood to touch because she has said she thinks the play will be OK. ‘F—! There has got to be some wood I can tap… Some wood… Tap.’ Her hands flap like trapped birds until she finds a wooden window ledge. ‘Sorry,’ she says, looking relieved. ‘Tapping wood is a big deal for me.’


Geoffrey Rush

He gives digital aliens personality, holds his own against Johnny Depp and fought to get a small film about stuttering made. Just three reasons why the star of ‘The King’s Speech’ still shines

If you walked in on my conversation with Geoffrey Rush without hearing the start of it, you would be forgiven for thinking he was talking about his role as the therapist in The King’s Speech, the film that won all those Oscars this year.

“You see, the director had included a charming cover note with the script saying how much he admired the work of Sir Alec Guinness, that style of acting where what you see on the outside is in total contradiction to what you suspect is going on in the inside. He said that he thought my acting had that same quality and that he’d like me to read this script with that in mind.” Actually, he’s talking about his role in Pirates of the Caribbean, the one in which he plays a pirate with brown teeth, a false beard and a monkey on his shoulder.

But you see his point. Not since Guinness has there been an actor who can carry off serious drama and blockbuster frivolity with such deftness. Guinness could convince as the stiff colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai in one film and Obi-Wan Kenobi in another. Rush can take on the subtlety of a character such as Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech and yet also be plausible as the cutlass-wielding Captain Barbossa in Pirates 4, as the latest instalment in the multi-billion dollar franchise has become known in advance of its release this month.

One big difference between the two actors though is this: Guinness found fame on the silver screen as a young man; for Rush it came late in life, after a midlife crisis, in fact. And, in a strange way, it was this very crisis that led to him playing the tortured pianist in Shine, the 1996 film that would make him one of the most bankable character actors in Hollywood. He won an Oscar for that role and followed it up with Oscar nominations for Quills and Shakespeare in Love. (He also won an Emmy for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and a Bafta for Elizabeth.)

Born in Brisbane, Australia, 59 years ago, Rush rejected the safe career path taken by his father, an accountant, and joined a repertory company immediately after graduating from the University of Queensland with a degree in English literature. If you studied the arts in Australia back then you were considered “a bit sissy”, he says. “You had to be into sport and, sad to say, I’m a traitor to my country because I don’t have a sporting bone in my body.” He doesn’t drive either.

He remained working in Australian theatre for 28 years, everything from Shakespeare to Beckett. With his long face and lugubrious manner he was never going to be a matinee idol. “But I always felt thrilled and amazed that I could put actor on my tax form,” he says. Then, in 1992, he had a breakdown, partly caused by overwork, partly from feeling that his stage career was stuck in a rut.

“I had hit a wall in terms of the degree of my perceived success,” he says, speaking from his home in Melbourne. “I was a jobbing actor in the Australian theatre scene, trying to explore the repertoire, but around that time I turned 40 and got married and had my first child.

“So I did go through some crazy panic attacks. The term ‘stage fright’ didn’t quite cover it because the fear was happening away from the stage as well. I was in a permanent state of panic, caused by my adrenal glands being in overdrive. My body was in a sort of fight or flight cycle.”

Then he was cast as David Helfgott, the pianist who has a breakdown in Shine. “But Shine kept getting postponed because it couldn’t get its $6million budget, which is modest by today’s standards. The film was on hold for three years and that gave me a chance to stop gallivanting around Australia, putting on eight plays a year to keep my career buoyant. It also gave me the chance to change the way I looked at my acting. I was unfamiliar with the camera and knew there was much to explore. It was like finding myself in a new playpen. I knew I had nothing to lose.”

Did he think that even at that late stage in his career he could still become the new Alec Guinness? “Actually, the film actor I most admired at that time was Gene Hackman. I’d been a massive fan of all those counterculture movies coming out of Hollywood in the Seventies. What I did feel was that my entire stage career up to that point had been one long audition for Shine.” The child, a daughter, who he says added to his anxieties with her arrival in 1992, is now almost 20 and has a brother, born in 1995. Together, he says, he and his young family lived through a golden age in which parents could enjoy family films as much as their children.

Before Pixar and DreamWorks raised CGI to an art form and introduced jokes that could work on different levels, parents would have to endure the films they went to see with their children. And perhaps the films which appeal to the broadest range of ages are those in the Pirates series.

“I think [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer had an inkling of its potential right from the start but he knew that no one had cracked a pirate film for 50 years, so he wasn’t being cocky. When the 2003 season started to highlight the big blockbusters for that summer there were a few sequels, such as Hulk and Charlie’s Angels, and then a list of 50 other films due to open, and Pirates was way down that list. Then it took off and the first idea we had that it might become a summer blockbuster franchise was when we saw that they had put a colon after the title Pirates of the Caribbean.” That one was Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl.

The latest, number four, is Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It features mermaids and a fountain of youth. Jack Sparrow is of course played by Johnny Depp as the slurring Keith Richards of the sea. And one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series so far has been the chemistry between Depp’s character and Rush’s, the two bicker like old maids. For his part, Rush has said that when he stands next to Depp, who is über-cool, he feels like a prat.

“You know, Johnny can wear a torn T-shirt and a bit of jewellery and look cool. If I do that, I look like my mother.” But how does he resist the temptation to slip into high camp when acting alongside Depp? “I think the contrast between the two characters was important right from the start, they sparked off one another.

“Johnny and I always think of the Black Pearl [the pirate ship] as being a shared girlfriend we are always fighting over.” The idea had been to have three male characters: Orlando Bloom as a contemporary version of Errol Flynn, Rush as a latter-day Robert Newton and Depp as a misfit somewhere in between the two.

“Johnny said to me that he had had this idea of playing Jack as someone whose brain is fried because he’s out in the sun all day and permanently soaked in rum. Yet, he’s also quite cunning. The real key to his character, though, is his strange walk. He had this idea that a pirate must spend half his time at sea, half on land, and so would never quite get his legs right.”

This is a huge juggernaut with much at stake for the Disney studio financially, does that affect the mood of the production?

“Well, I can’t deny the scale of it. I remember we were all about to sit down for a table read through at the Disney offices once and Johnny decided we should do it in his club, the Viper Room, instead, so as we would feel on a human scale. So if there is a relaxed atmosphere on set I think it is down to him. He says he sees it as an independent film that happens to have a s— load of money attached to it.”

Rush also remembers shooting a scene for Pirates 3 that made him appreciate quite how big the budget was. “It’s the scene where we have a big parlay and the pre-war chat.

“To shoot that one short scene we went 30 miles out to sea to a sandbar that was only visible eight hours a day. There they grappled together three oil tankers to use as a production base. When I saw that, I suddenly realised what a monster this had become. For six actors to have a dialogue on a beach meant there were 800 people to provide lunch for, stunt men, people to rake the sand between takes and so on. So yes, at that point we did feel a pressure not to screw up.”

His has been quite an unconventional career, I note, given that for most of it he was a stage actor, then for his very first film at the age of 45 he won an Oscar. Does he still have to pinch himself? “Yeah, self-pinching has been part of it for the past 14 years. When the role of David Helfgott came up I felt sure I could bring something to it, having had experience of playing strange roles such as Lear’s Fool and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.”

But after Shine, Hollywood didn’t know quite what to do with him. “One of the things the studio offered me after that was to play Liberace, which I thought was hilarious. I suppose they thought I could open up the keyboard genre.” At that point the only names that were internationally known from Australia were Rod Taylor, Frank Thring and then, much later, Rush’s former flatmate Mel Gibson. The two had appeared together in Waiting for Godot and then Gibson had headed off for Hollywood.

“Mel was very much an anomaly at that point because in the late Seventies he was the first indication that we were having a renaissance in the Australian film industry. It had been moribund for four decades with no home-grown product. Then came a generation of directors such as Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong and Bruce Beresford emerging internationally. And Mel, who was probably the first true Hollywood star to come out of Australia.” Are they still in touch? “Not directly, we did some theatre together way back in the Seventies when he was in his early twenties.” Does the troubled actor need an old friend to put an arm around his shoulder? “I suppose in some ways his public image isn’t great at the moment but I was pleased to read something the other day about Jodie Foster going in to bat for him. She said she trusted his friendship and goodness and artistry, and I think I do, too. They have a film out which has been invited to Cannes this year. The Beaver. It will give the media a lot of fodder because, from what I gather, in that film some of Mel’s troubles find a very interesting outlet.”

Rush lives in a leafy suburb in Melbourne. One morning a couple of years ago he found a brown paper package on his doormat. “It was lying there like an orphan.” The attached letter said “excuse the invasion, and for not going through the protocol of your agent, but we’re desperate for you to know that this script exists, because there is a wonderful role that we would love for you to consider”. So he read it and saw the script had potential. It was The King’s Speech.

How gratifying must that be that he spotted it first? “Actually my primal response was that this would be tricky to film and would probably have no viable commercial life but that it was a fantastic story: two men and their relationship which grows out of a class divide between royalty and commoners and a cultural divide between Australia and England.”

And that latter aspect is especially intriguing at the moment as Australia moves gradually towards a republic. “I never deliberately claimed that there was a republican stance behind Logue. But there was always a fundamental egalitarian aspect to the Australian life which meant Logue had the nerve to say to a rigidly formal king that he needed a new set of rules.” As an Aussie, Rush says, he supposes he leans towards the republican movement, but not in an aggressive way. And he does believe the monarchy has its place in British society. “Prince William was out in Australia not long ago and he surprised the locals by being pretty adept at kicking a football. It was about breaking down that mystique.”

Has he ever been tempted to up sticks and live here in the mother country, as did others from his generation, such as Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer? “I’ve got older colleagues who are now in their seventies and eighties and they remember beating that path to England in the Sixties and Seventies, because there was nothing here to keep people employed then. But there is now. I’m part of a generation of actors who didn’t feel they had to do that because there was an awakening in Australian film-making and theatre in the Seventies. I guess I’ve been fortunate in having an ongoing film career while being based in Melbourne. I’m happy to commute. A day on a plane. Come on. It’s easy.”

He did one of his “days on the plane” recently to record a voice for Green Lantern, another big family film planned for release this summer. “That was a great thrill for me. It came out of nowhere. When the agent approached me I said: ‘But isn’t that about to open?’ And he said, ‘There is one character which is completely CGI and they want you to provide the voice.’ I thought, why not?”

He’s also just been over in the United States acting in a play on Broadway, The Diary of a Mad Man. This follows his critically acclaimed performance in Exit The King. Given he has suffered stage fright in the past, why does he still put himself through the torture of live theatre?

“Originally it was part of my self-imposed therapy because when I had those panic attacks back in the early Nineties, I went to see various psychologists and did behavioural therapy. Everyone had different solutions and most said I was in a state of self repair because I had gone back on stage. It was like getting used to going in deep water when you fear you are not a good swimmer. You realise you can swim and you can get yourself out of any tricky situation.”


Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor has been involved in no fewer than six films this year. But that doesn’t stop his fellow countrymen telling him: ‘You’re not as good as Alec Guinness.’ Interview by Nigel Farndale

Being Ewan McGregor, that must be a laugh. I don’t just mean the being paid millions to act out male fantasies – firing a 50-cal machine gun in a war zone one day, sharing a bed with Nicole Kidman the next – because that applies to other Hollywood actors, too. I mean the being him particularly: having his temperament, his restlessness bordering on immaturity.

Take this comment, made over lunch in London as he vigorously saws his way through a rib-eye steak. ‘I was climbing a tree the other day and …’ Hang on a minute. Climbing a tree? Why was he climbing a tree? ‘Because it looked like a good tree to climb.’ He chews, swallows and starts cutting again. ‘Anyway, I was about three-quarters of the way up and I bottled. When I was younger I would have kept going until I could stick my head out of the top branches, even if it was swaying around. I was fearless, then.’

And at the age of 35 he’s lost his nerve? ‘Well I did get frightened up there. Maybe it’s to do with being a father, having responsibilities.’

But, hang on again, he’s about to set off on another of his motorbike rides with his friend Charlie Boorman, this time taking ‘the Long Way Down’ to Cape Town, a distance of 14,000 miles through countries where they have coups every 10 minutes and like nothing better than a good kidnapping before breakfast. ‘Yeah, yeah, but I’m not losing sleep about it. In fact I’m blindly optimistic about the whole thing. We’ll try and be careful about the route.’

Blind optimism has served McGregor well. He went the Long Way Round two years ago, 18,000 miles that time, over three months, largely because he felt he needed to get out of his comfort zone. What may have started as a premature mid-life crisis turned out to be a sound career move. They took a cameraman with them. The subsequent documentary and book were both huge hits. He was also able to raise funds for Unicef – he is a UN goodwill ambassador – something he intends to do again this time, stopping off to visit African orphanages as he takes the Long Way Down.

Part of the appeal of Long Way Round was in seeing a Hollywood star removed from the trappings of fame, bonding with his mate, enjoying his anonymity (he grew a bushy Viking beard). McGregor came across as being unaffected, open and likeable. Unusually for an actor, he is unpretentious and has little interest in talking about acting, though he will, out of politeness. His watch has a big face. Circling his ring finger there is a big band of gold. Today he is in ripped jeans and a white T-shirt, which shows the big red-and-blue tattoo on his right bicep. There is a bigness to his personality, too. He has a room-filling laugh.

I wonder if, on Long Way Round, he ever caught himself playing Ewan McGregor? ‘No, but I did learn some things about myself. There were times when I felt isolated in those vast landscapes. I become much more dark and moody than I thought I was capable of being. We were very undisciplined about eating. We would get so into our riding that we wouldn’t stop for lunch and sometimes by five I was so empty I started getting depressed. We won’t repeat that mistake on the Long Way Down.’

McGregor is – how can one put this? – promiscuous as an actor. This year alone he has been involved in six films, and he often seems to have two out at a time, as well as the odd musical on stage. The last time we met he had a darkly existentialist art-house film out, Young Adam, as well as a fluffy 1950s-style Doris Day romp called Down With Love. This time the contrast is just as great with Scenes of a Sexual Nature, in which he plays a homosexual man in a long-term relationship, and Miss Potter, a partly animated family film about the life of Beatrix Potter (played by Renée Zellweger). In that, he plays Norman, the doomed love interest.

I suppose when you consider that McGregor is best known for playing a junkie in Trainspotting and a Jedi knight in the Star Wars prequels, this odd mix of roles is not so surprising. But what is behind this scattergun approach, and the uneven quality of his work? Is it boredom? ‘It just sort of happens because I’m quite easily pleased with scripts, I think. I’m impulsive. I don’t plan.’

He and his wife, Eve Mavrakis, a French production designer, have two daughters, Clara, 10, and Esther, five, and have just adopted a third, a four-year-old girl from Mongolia. (He came across her in an orphanage while on the Long Way Round and managed to sort out the bureaucracy of adoption with much less fuss than Madonna.) He often reads the Beatrix Potter books to his youngest children. ‘Some of the stories are quite bizarre,’ he says. ‘My kids love them. We’ve got the box set. That was part of the appeal for me of doing the film.’

There is a sentimental side to him, then. But also a laddish side. McGregor has appeared naked in several of his films, never passing up an opportunity to show off his appendage. I tell him I was quite surprised he didn’t find an excuse to get it out in Miss Potter. He grins broadly. ‘I did try to. They said, “It’s nice Ewan, but we don’t think it quite works with this film.” They tried animating it: put Peter Rabbit’s face on it and it spoke to Beatrix, but they didn’t think it was tasteful enough in the end.’

So one day he was playing a staid and virginal Victorian gentleman with a big moustache, the next a gay man on Hampstead Heath. I ask if he needed to empathise with these characters in order to play them. ‘Yes, but essentially you must play the words on the page. In Scenes of a Sexual Nature I have to tell another man I love him and at first I thought it doesn’t matter whether it is a man or a woman, but actually it does – because the themes they are discussing are absolutely informed by the fact that they are gay men.

‘Discussing infidelity is different for these two gay men because in their relationship it is allowed. However, I didn’t want to try and play gay, as in camp, because there are as many different types of gay men as there are heterosexual.’

He has played a gay man before, in Velvet Goldmine. ‘That was more in your face because I had to French-kiss Jonnie Rhys Meyers. It was no coincidence that the entire electrical department walked off the set next day. I think they found it too uncomfortable. I was harangued on set for wearing my platforms and my spray-on jeans and make-up. Technicians were shouting: “Oy! Facking pretty boy.” It was a weird insight. I very much enjoy the company of gay men.

‘I have a fun time with them but because of the theatrical circles I move in I don’t often see the other side of the story, which is the bigotry and the homophobic stuff. I was subject to homophobic anger and that in turn made me feel angry. I said: F— this! This is my work. I don’t come and harangue you when you are doing your work. I don’t slag you off for being sparks plugging in lights.’

Can he look after himself in a fight? ‘Probably, if I was angry enough my inner Scotsman would come out. But I’ve never had a proper fight with anyone apart from silly scraps at school.’

School was in Perthshire, the private Morrison’s Academy. He left there to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and immediately afterwards, in 1993, won his first starring role, in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar. He returns to Perthshire regularly to see his parents, who are teachers, and his older brother, who is a fighter pilot. He has always been conscious that what his brother does for a living is manlier than what he does. ‘I can’t think of two more diverse professions than what my brother and I do. He does a proper job. He flies at 500 miles an hour 200 feet above the ground. F—ing incredible. Whereas I wear make-up for a living.’

McGregor has sometimes fantasised about being a soldier. He revelled in training with the US Rangers for the film Black Hawk Down, a dramatic reconstruction of the American assault on Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. ‘One of the reasons I was desperate to be in that film was that I wanted to try and work out how I would cope. It made me question how brave I might be in the same circumstances. My brother has flown in the Gulf many times and it fascinates me. Men and war and how they cope. I read books about it. I can almost imagine myself dealing with it once you’re in the situation but not before, when it is building up; I think I would go to pieces then.’

That said, there was an accident on a set once when a dolly fell on a grip and split his head open. ‘I became absolutely calm saying: “Right, let’s do this, he’ll go to hospital and be stitched up and everything will be fine.” I quite surprised myself by that.’

He also finds he is like that when anything happens to his children. ‘It’s horrible when your kids hurt themselves but if one of mine falls, or something, I do stay calm. My youngest one has a nice boxer’s scar here…’ he points to his face. ‘And one down here.’ He points to his ear. She’s a high-spirited child who seems to cut herself a lot falling over.’

The family live in St John’s Wood, where McGregor likes to do the school run. He is protective about his children, refusing to allow them to be filmed or photographed, and threatening legal action against the paparazzi who try. He has become more relaxed about being papped himself, though, he says. ‘When I was dressed up as a tomato in Trafalgar Square for the Film 4 campaign there were paparazzi everywhere – and who can blame them? I mean, I was dressed as a tomato in Trafalgar Square – but I thought I can either let this ruin my day or I can have a laugh.’

He learnt that attitude from Woody Allen, whose next film he is in. ‘In New York no one has the power to stop these people so you just have to get on with it. I watch Woody and he just doesn’t give a shit, he wanders around.’

When I ask whether there are any chinks in his armour of positivism, other than that he gets depressed when he doesn’t eat, he says, ‘Yeah, I can’t stand cynicism. And I do resent it when people come up just to be rude about my work. You know, why do they feel the need to tell me: “That film was shit.” You can think it but don’t come up and tell me. It happens quite a lot in Scotland for some reason. “You’re not as big as you think you are, McGregor.” I think it’s because they have this attitude that: “He is one of us and we have to keep his feet on the ground.”

‘I was with my mum and my daughter the other day and I watched this guy get up and walk over and say: “I’ve got to tell you this. Got to say it. You’re not nearly as good as Alec Guinness.” I went, “Thanks.” Then he walked away and I was left thinking: “Oh great, now I feel pissed off and my time with my daughter has been ruined”.’

He is on location in New York at the moment, filming a thriller called The Tourist. His family usually join him on location but this time it would have meant his children coming out of school, so he has gone on his own. ‘Being away on location is part of being an actor. I do miss my wife and children though.’

He lights up a cigarette. ‘But there are two sides to it because it is easier for the work when there are no family distractions. You have to be selfish because of the unsociable hours and the intensity of the work. In that respect it is better to come home to an empty apartment and just learn your lines for the next day and go to bed. But the other side is your heart. Your kids aren’t there and your wife isn’t there. This time we have sorted out some video conferencing, having dinner together with your laptops either side of the Atlantic. Nice idea. The sexual possibilities are endless.’

When I tell him to be careful it isn’t recorded somewhere, he looks worried. ‘Is it?’ Well it has to go somewhere. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’ He shakes his head and grins. ‘Thanks.’


Evan Davis

Thanks in part to his role in ‘Dragons’ Den’, Evan Davis is the first BBC economics editor to enjoy something approaching cult status, writes Nigel Farndale

Three men in suits are sitting by the window in a pizza restaurant near Earls Court. ‘Hey,’ they say excitedly, as they look out on to the street,’ there’s Evan Davis.’ Not: ‘Hey, there’s that bloke off Dragons’ Den,’ or ‘Hey, there’s the BBC’s economics editor.’

The recognition is telling. A strange cult of personality has grown up around the man. Private Eye advertises Evan Davis T-shirts, there is a popular Evan Davis blog called Evanomics, and he is number 49 on the ‘pink list’ – a list of the top 101 most influential gay men and women published annually by a Sunday newspaper.

More significantly, Evan Davis knows our new Prime Minister well, which is a claim few can make.

The men in the pizza place are right, by the way. It is indeed Davis pacing up and down outside, talking into a mobile, looking tall and lean in a pinstripe suit – distinctive, too, with his razor-cut hair.

He is wearing a heavy silver chain around his neck, under his open-collared shirt. The only other visible jewellery is on his fingers: chunky silver rings. I have arranged to meet him around the corner at his top-floor flat, but not for another 10 minutes – because he has also arranged to let in a man who has come to give him a quote for tiling his bathroom.

I pass the tile man on the stairs. I also pass a muscular torso; it is life-sized and silver, modelled on a Greek sculpture.

‘Ev’, as his mother calls him, shares this flat with his partner of five years, Guillaume, a landscape architect, but their sitting-room is not so much Greek as Spartan.

Two plain sofas. Plain ochre walls. A large black fireplace, a television in the corner and a couple of books: Oscar Wilde and Edmund White. The only unexpected feature is a plastic globe of the sort that might be found in a school.

I tell him about the men in the pizza place. ‘Well, the thing that has made a big difference is Dragons’ Den (the hit BBC2 show in which would-be entrepreneurs pitch ideas at would-be investors), which is a departure into entertainment television.

‘That significantly raised my profile. Most people who stop me say, “You’re that bloke from Dragons’ Den”, which is a bit depressing when you have worked for 10 years in news. It’s the only thing I’ve touched that sells itself. Even with news you have to sell it a bit. You have to explain why the viewer should care.’

His right arm snakes up and wraps elastically around the back of his head, so that his hand is clamped onto the left side of his neck, not so much an act of contortion as of shyness. ‘It’s funny. The producers of Dragons’ Den asked my advice on who should present it, and I said you should find someone without too much personality, because you don’t want to distract from the dragons, and two weeks later they came back and said, “Do you want to be the presenter?” I suppose I should be insulted.’

Actually, Davis does have plenty of personality: a crinkly charm and puppyish effervescence that belies his 45 years. An endearing wonkiness, too: his eyes list slightly and he has an off-centre smile.

Treacherously, the Radio Times, a BBC publication, once compared him to Sid the Sloth in the animated film Ice Age. ‘He has the same weird, long rubbery neck, the same jutting mini ears, the same range of facial expressions.’

It is, nevertheless, a fine-looking and friendly face, which may explain why it seems to have become the face of the BBC lately.

In addition to the 10 O’Clock News and Dragons’ Den, Davis also appears on Have I Got News For You and works for Radio 4, hosting the Saturday evening business discussion show The Bottom Line, as well as presenting documentary series on anything from comprehensive schools to the housing market.

But his ubiquity is not just about his face or his personality: he is an economics guru with a first in PPE from Oxford and a masters degree from Harvard – and before becoming a broadcaster he worked as an economist for the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He is brainy, in a word.

And he combines this braininess with an enviable gift for explaining complicated economic issues in a lucid, breezy and intelligible way, without sounding patronising. People who don’t really understand economics listen to his reports on the news and think they do – and they often stop him in the street to pick his brains.

‘People keep asking me if there is going to be a housing crash,’ he says. ‘What is going to happen to interest rates? Should I fix? But they never say: tell us more about the migration statistics. I sometimes, out of devilment, get tempted to whisper something like, “All I’m saying is, buy bottled water”, and give a significant wink.

‘As a rule, though, economists tend not to give advice. My whole pitch is to make people aware of the uncertainties in life. That is the only sensible line an economist can take.

‘You have to decide in relation to your circumstances what the risks are. What interest rates can you handle? What terrifies you? Should you be insuring yourself? Generally, I would say, if your mortgage is small relative to your income, I wouldn’t bother fixing, and vice versa.’

His accessible approach, he says, is partly to do with recognising that a television audience includes hugely different ability levels. This is in contrast to his predecessor Peter Jay, who once ticked off a Times sub-editor who complained that his economics column was unintelligible. ‘I am writing for three people in England,’ he said loftily, ‘and you are not one of them.’ (The three were two Treasury mandarins and the Governor of the Bank of England.)

‘Peter was an inspiration to me,’ Davis says. ‘When I was doing my economics A-level it was at the time when monetarists and Keynesians were battling it out, and he made great sense to me. I see myself as doing what Peter did, only in a more populist way.’

By dumbing down? ‘One newspaper said we had been trained to wave our arms around. Such nonsense. They don’t even tell us what to wear.

‘I think people would be amazed how little training we get before going in front of camera. It’s amazing I’m allowed on. So many egregious nervous tics and looks. I don’t agree with that argument in relation to me. It’s television, for goodness’ sake. You have to compete for attention. It has to be engaging. I never have economically literate people criticise my economics for being dumbed down.’

Does he ever worry that his steer might affect the markets? He gives a gentle, rippling laugh. ‘I’ve never moved markets. There is a natural caution about giving people economic news in such a stark way that it can move markets.

‘The only occasion when I have seriously thought “Oh goodness, this might have an affect on the very thing we are reporting” was after Hurricane Katrina. There were petrol refinery shortages. I did wonder then how I was going to report that without starting a rush for the petrol pumps that would leave the country gridlocked.’

He clearly doesn’t suffer from maths anxiety. ‘I do a bit, actually. I live in perpetual terror of my brain freezing and of being caught out like Stephen Byers on Five Live.’

Six times nine, I say. Silence. ‘It’s absolutely happened! Um … It’s 54.’

It was a cruel question because 54 was the answer Byers, the then school minister, gave to the question: what is eight times seven?

‘Funnily enough, I …I’m not great with numbers, and use fewer than my colleagues. I know what the numbers are doing, but that is different. And, actually, exact numbers don’t matter very much.

‘The correct economist’s answer to your question is “about 50”. If you are looking for the precision of “Is it 53 or 55?”, who cares? The important thing is that it is not 10 and it is not 100. Getting the order of magnitude right is more important.’

See what I mean? I had never thought of numbers – and the economy – like that before. I suggest that this is what makes him such a reassuring figure as a broadcaster.

‘Not everyone likes me. I get a lot of people who disagree with me, not hate mail exactly. They think quite a few of us at the BBC are smug, Blairite, patronising, London-based. The truth is, of all the criticisms, the London one is most valid.’

Speaking of Blair, before he left Downing Street he said the economy had never been better. Was he right? ‘I … I think that would be a simple way of putting it. You can’t discount the possibility that the economy will go bad. It’s uncertainty again. I’m afraid you can’t get away from uncertainty.

‘But, regardless of what may be about to happen, I would say we have had a pretty good run for the past 10 years. Not perhaps as good as the Government says, but pretty good.

‘Not that it’s the Government wot done it, necessarily. World circumstances also favoured us. Societies that consume a lot and have been able to borrow money to buy cheap imports have done well.’

Does he vote Labour? ‘I don’t have any political allegiance now, though I was a member of the SDP at university.’ He grins again. ‘The Eurosceptics often criticise me, saying I am biased towards the euro. I’m not, because I genuinely don’t know how I would vote on it if there were a referendum tomorrow. The conspiracy they see at the BBC is quite beyond the capabilities of BBC management to organise.’

Davis has had a ringside seat for the Gordon Brown chancellorship; is the man a Stalinist? ‘I probably know him better than most, but I don’t know what kind of Prime Minister he will make, that will depend on his instincts, reactions and priorities, not his personality.

‘I haven’t seen him having a tantrum, I … no, I haven’t. I will say what everyone says, which is that he is nicer in private than in the media. I’m not a fan of his interview style. He comes across as more wooden than he is.’

Davis’s parents are from South Africa. They emigrated here a few months before he was born. His father was an electronics engineer and became a reader at the University of Surrey.

He has two older brothers, one who works in the City, the other who runs his own business. He went to a comprehensive. ‘I wasn’t the brightest child and it helped me having parents who were nurturing. I came home with careers leaflets about how to become a police constable and my parents were slightly angst-ridden about whether the school was pushing me enough.’

And now look at him: number 49 in the pink list. Laughter is always just below his surface, and he has the good grace to laugh at this. ‘I did see that list. I was amused by it.’

But here we enter tricky territory. Evan Davis doesn’t mind talking about his private life to me in private, but he is reluctant to do so in print. As he puts it, if he answers one question it invites the next.

Anyway. Here goes. When did he come out? ‘I went to the States and came back and thought I’d better tell my parents. That was the hardest bit. I don’t think they knew. They have been 100 per cent supportive. They like Guillaume and he likes them. Having a landscape architect who knows about plants makes for easy in-law relations.’

He tells me about how he told his brother first, saying ‘I have something to tell you, can you guess what it is?’ And the brother guessed correctly, adding that that is the way he should tell their parents, too.

He decided to do it after Christmas lunch. They didn’t guess, so the brother who already knew pretended to guess for them. At this point, his other brother cracked a good joke, which, alas, Evan would rather I didn’t repeat here.

As a landscape architect, I suggest, Guillaume must hanker for broad acres rather than a roof terrace in Earls Court. ‘Well, we have a place in France together. He’s French. We made the strategic decision about whether to upgrade this flat or buy a place in France where houses are cheaper, and I think it is the best decision we ever made. It is nice for him to be able to have some space to plant things.’

Is a marriage in prospect? He purses his lips. ‘This is all the personal stuff which is verboten, I’m afraid.’

He stretches out on the sofa and looks at the ceiling. ‘We’re happy as we are. But I’ll let you know.’ A grin. ‘I would say that I think those who thought gay marriage would undermine heterosexual marriage have been proved wrong.’

The couple go jogging together along the Thames and Evan ran the London marathon this year in a time of 4 hours 17 minutes. ‘Running is a great way to lift your spirits,’ he says. He gets depressed otherwise? ‘I have sullen moments, not great periods of melancholy. I get anxious. I have short-term stress. A good relationship has helped, seeing eye to eye. We are programmed for companionship.

‘Because Guillaume and I are not in competition at work, it works well.’ His reticence about his private life is understandable. As economics editor of the BBC, he needs to have gravitas and he may well have been asked to tone things down a bit after it emerged that his nickname is Tinsel Tits. His nipples are pierced, you see, and he is said to have a Prince Albert in the trouser department. He will neither confirm nor deny it, sensibly enough, and wryly avoids the question by describing himself as ‘a man of mystery’.

‘I don’t want tattoos and body-piercing to be the dominant thing in interviews,’ he says. ‘I know the world tends to be interested in these things, but I find it better to lie low on them. Gay men tend to live different lives to other people and it would take the tabloids a nanosecond to find out all sorts of horrible things, so it’s better not to make a big deal about it.

‘I’m not embarrassed about it. On a one-to-one basis I am happy to talk to you about it. But I would like to keep it contained.’ Perhaps it adds to his cult status, I suggest. Perhaps viewers of the 10 O’Clock News tune in to try to work out what is under his shirt. ‘Perhaps,’ he says.

I agree to mention all this only in passing at the end, on condition that he pose for our photograph with his shirt off. He is laughing again, rocking back and forth on the sofa. ‘That would spoil everything.’

He wants to remain an enigma? ‘I don’t want to be an enigma, that’s the annoying thing.’ He shakes his head. ‘Actually, I am so superficial, the more you question me, the more you will realise that I am exactly like I am on the telly. There is no more to me than that.’