It’s not just ducks and overweight people who waddle. As Charlie  Higson – 5ft 10in of solid but unfleshy television personality – heads towards me across the floor of an Indian restaurant in Soho, I see he does it, too: feet splayed, hips forward as though bearing the weight of a pot belly, arms flat against sides. The 41-year-old comedian, producer, novelist and one-time pop star is wearing an open-neck shirt, moleskin suit and black, Michael Caine glasses.
If this is a disguise, it works: you would never recognise the face. Yet the shuffling gait reminds you of someone: Ralph, the tragi-comic landowner that Higson plays in the catchphrase-based comedy programme The Fast Show (the awkward one who is unable to express his feelings toward his Irish gamekeeper and odd job man, Ted, played by Paul Whitehouse).
‘Unlike Paul, I never get recognised in the street,’ Higson says in a thin, neutral voice as he sits down and studies the menu. ‘It’s because I like hiding behind wigs and false beards. I wear a different one for each character I play. Maybe I’ve just got bland features.’ But there’s more to his anonymity than that. His presence evokes Arthur C Clarke’s description of the monolithic slab at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s as if Higson, too, is made of some transparent material which is not easy to see except when the rising sun glints on its edges. He absorbs light and has a cold, hard surface. Not only do you not recognise him from the various characters he plays in The Fast Show – among them Colin Hunt the office joker, and Swiss Toni the boastful car salesman – you don’t recognise him in any of them either. This doesn’t apply to other comic actors, I point out. You always know instantly when it is Paul Whitehouse or Harry Enfield beneath the make-up.
‘That’s because they have star quality,’ Higson says softly. ‘Like Peter Sellers. They are always recognisable however clever the character. I hide behind my characters. The people I do tend to put on a big front to cover up a deep-seated inadequacy and an inability to cope with things. I’m a very shy person. I’m probably quite close to Colin Hunt – shy and lonely. Colin has invented this persona for himself in an attempt to be accepted and make friends. And underneath it you know he has no friends and no life. Swiss Toni is actually having a nervous breakdown underneath the bravado about cars and women. He’s trying to cling on to things by being a “character”.’
At first this seems an odd analogy. Charlie Higson has got a life. As we order a mixed starter for two and a bottle of wine, for instance, he tells me that he has to be careful not to drink too much because he never knows what his parental duties in the evening will entail.
He met his wife, Vicky, a freelance graphic designer, through university friends, but he can’t quite remember when they got married – ‘Going on 15 years now.’ They have three sons – Frank, Jim and Sid. The youngest is one, the oldest seven. ‘I love playing with them,’ he says. ‘Any excuse to play with soldiers and guns, really. On one level I was dreading the third child coming because there was such a gap – the middle one is five – and we’d just got our lives sorted out. But actually it’s been fun.’
As he goes on to talk about his own childhood – most of which was spent on his own, in his bedroom, fantasising and writing stories – it becomes apparent what Higson means when he says he’s a bit of a Colin Hunt. He and his three brothers (two older, one younger) grew up near Sevenoaks in Kent, where they were also educated (privately). Their father was an accountant who commuted into London every day.
Charlie Higson remembers feeling embarrassed when he watched that Monty Python sketch about the accountant who wants to be a lion tamer. ‘That totally did for accountants,’ he says. ‘And I shared the view that accountants were dull and what they did was boring. My father was part of this middle-class establishment that everyone takes the piss out of. Occasionally there was that feeling of hating your parents for giving you a comfortable upbringing. Finding your parents embarrassing is an important part of growing up, though, and I hope I shall prove to be an embarrassment to my children.’
But this alone does not explain why he sees himself as a shy and lonely Colin Hunt; why he hints at an emptiness inside himself. Something frozen. Like his character Ralph – the one he says he finds easiest to play – he is emotionally repressed and introverted. And after he has spoken for a few minutes more about his embarrassingly comfortable and dull upbringing, he reveals a more obvious cause of emotional atrophy. His mother died, of cancer, when he was 18. ‘But if I’d been a young teenager the loss would have been much worse,’ he adds matter-of-factly. ‘My youngest brother was certainly hit much harder than the rest of us. I was sort of at that age when I was about to leave home anyway. Then again, when you are 18 you can start treating your parents as human beings and so I regret not getting to know my mother as a friend. And I do sometimes catch myself wishing she was still around to see what became of me.’
He now thinks that he didn’t mourn enough at the time of her death. ‘But am I like this because I’m shutting emotions down and being deliberately hard-hearted and cold, or is it that I just don’t care enough? I don’t know. I cry at the drop of a hat in cinemas but I don’t find it easy to cry in real life. I didn’t cry much when my mother died. I guess I live in a fictional world. I’m far too unemotional.’
Not long after his mother’s death, his father met an Englishwoman who had been married to a Hawaiian, and moved first to Hawaii, then to Seattle. ‘As a teenager I’d think, “Wouldn’t it be great if my parents disappeared and I could just do what I like?” But when it actually happens it doesn’t seem so exciting. My father just wanted to get away, change his life. Everything he had assumed would happen in his life just sort of stopped. I suppose he was disillusioned.’
Higson blocked out his mother’s death, he says, and with his father gone he was cut adrift. ‘It meant I could reinvent myself. I felt there were no pressures on me. Did it make me harder? I don’t think so. I think your personality is fixed from an early age. It must have affected me on a number of levels, but I’m not sure how. I’m more aware of my own mortality, I guess, and I probably feel more protective toward my children, but I’m not bitter about it. I’ve never felt the need to analyse it or see a psychiatrist.’ The comedian grins, reads something written on the back of his hand, and crunches on a popadum before adding: ‘But if my life falls apart and I do have a breakdown, then that is the time to look into it.’
Higson is often accused of being arrogant. Certainly this is how he comes across when interviewed on television. Yet having met him I now suspect that this is more an over-compensation for his natural shyness.  It’s almost as if, conscious that he will present himself as conceited, he does so unconsciously as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Away from the cameras he seems reserved, intelligent and self-deprecating. And so far he hasn’t played the monster of ego.
And he couldn’t have been less like a former singer in an Indie band. I notice his ear has a hole in it – but no earring – a legacy, perhaps, of the days when he wore a blue mohican and went by the name of Switch. He formed his first band, The Right-Handed Lovers, when he went to the University of East Anglia in 1977 to study English and American literature. It was there that he met Paul Whitehouse, who became the band’s guitarist before being sent down for not doing any course work.  After UEA, Higson formed a new band – sans Whitehouse – and called it, rather vaingloriously, the Higsons. In 1981 their first single, ‘I Don’t Want To Live With the Monkeys’, went to number one in the Indie charts, but this turned out to be a peak. The band did three tours of America, made two albums, drifted for a few years and split up in 1987.
‘I knew I wasn’t 100 per cent committed to being a rock star,’ Higson now reflects sheepishly. ‘Sadly, to be a successful one you have to believe you are this amazing person. It’s an ego trip. You have to be unembarrassable. You have to feel important, feel you deserve to be worshipped by the audience. We were too self-conscious. Trying to be too ironic.’ I ask if, while it lasted, the rock life was all cocaine, groupies and throwing television sets out of windows?  ‘No, I was a bit stupid on that front. During the whole period I was in a steady relationship. But it would have been difficult anyway because there was a strange gang mentality with the rest of the band, the amount of stick you got for going off with someone was so bad it just wasn’t worth it.’
The band split up for the usual reasons. ‘We slipped into petty jealousies and rivalries. It was awful. I’m not a good singer. I’m a terrible singer. But I was a reasonably good front man, good at entertaining the crowd. And the resentment I got from the drummer was quite ferocious really. Drums take a lot of skill to play so the drummer would ask, “Why are they always talking to Charlie in interviews? Why don’t they want to talk to me?”‘
Throughout his flirtation with the world of pop, Charlie Higson remained friends with Paul Whitehouse, who had moved to London and taken a job as a clerk for the Environmental Health Department in Hackney. In the early Eighties Whitehouse had met Harry Enfield through an old school friend. Higson and Enfield (a milkman at the time) moved into a squat around the corner from Whitehouse. During the day, as the band wound down, Whitehouse and Higson earned a living as a plasterer and decorator team. At night, in the pub, they helped Enfield develop comedy characters, two of which became Stavros the kebab shop owner and Loadsamoney the plasterer.
It was Harry Enfield who hit the big time first and, in 1988, when he began to enjoy huge success on television, Whitehouse and Higson gave up plastering and, with the help of an an Enterprise Allowance Scheme, launched themselves as comedy writers. With Enfield, they co-wrote Harry Enfield’s Television Programme from 1990 to 1992. But while Whitehouse and Enfield are still friends, relations between Higson and Enfield became pretty frosty. ‘That was an interesting time,’ Higson says through a wintry smile.
‘Harry is an incredibly talented person and you could see he was always going to do well because he was so driven. I was grateful to be a leech on his back for a while but then that became difficult because I wanted to do things more on my own. Tension grew between us because I like quite a degree of control and so does he. Things came to a head, a clash of egos and we both went our separate ways. You don’t end up doing what I do for a living unless you have a big ego.’
Or unless you are truly consumed by ambition. Higson plays computer games to shut out his thoughts sometimes, that or gardening. Is it because he’s a worrier? Does he sleep well at night? ‘When you have young children you don’t normally have the luxury of not being able to sleep,’ he answers. ‘I don’t worry but I do go to bed with all these thoughts and ideas churning round my head so I do have to work out ways to block them.’ In his profession there is no long-term security, he says. And comedy is a young person’s game.  This is why he divides his time between television work and writing novels. He has published four so far, detective thrillers that are dark, violent and pornographic.
‘When I’m writing I’m in a different world,’ he says.  ‘I get stick from my wife for it because I get so distracted thinking about something I’m working on I become very bad about talking to people at dinner-parties. I listen but I don’t speak much. And she is constantly telling me off. I get lost in my thoughts, filtering everything in terms of how I can use it creatively. And that can be a bit sad sometimes because you think, “I should be participating in life more. I shouldn’t be ignoring people.”‘
Charlie Higson describes himself as being ‘happy to the point of smugness’. But he adds that he is at his happiest when he is on his own. He finds it difficult to relax. When he’s on holiday he feels twitchy. And if for some reason he was ever prevented from working he thinks he would have a nervous breakdown.
One of his older brothers is a professor in humanities at UEA, the other runs an engineering firm in Somerset. In light of these worthy career options, I ask Higson if he ever questions whether writing comedy is a proper job for a grown man. Does he wonder whether his father, the middle-class accountant whom he still sees a couple of times a year, approves of what he does for a living?  ‘Is it trivial you mean? Well…’ Pause. Laugh. ‘At the risk of sounding pompous and arrogant, you are giving pleasure to a lot of people… But I know what you mean. At the moment I’m in post-production with something and I’ve had to spend a lot of time in the dubbing stage designing the perfect fart and working out exactly where to place it. And I sometimes stand back and think, “What the hell am I doing? Is this a job for a grown man?”‘
The something he is working on is a remake of the Seventies series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), six hour-long films to be screened on BBC1 later this year, starring Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer – and Hopkirk’s one power is that he can blow things. In one of the episodes he discovers he can also affect things through the power of flatulence. When he has finished producing this, Higson is planning a reunion of The Fast Show team for a one-off special. After we’ve been talking for a few minutes more, Higson confides, with a note of sadness in his voice, that The Fast Show is the first thing he’s done which his father has felt proud of.
‘Finally, finally!’ he says, hunching his shoulders. ‘I mean, my father hated everything I did before. He hated the fact that I was in the band, that his son was up there being embarrassing. Caterwauling. He won’t let anyone else read my books, he finds them pornographic and too black. He appreciates the fact I’ve written them and that they do quite well, you know, but he won’t recommend them to anyone. And he found the Harry Enfield show coarse and embarrassing, things like the Old Gits and the Slobs. He just thought it ugly and unpleasant. He would switch over and say, “I don’t think we want to watch this.”‘ He pauses and chuckles to himself. ‘My dad’s not as bad as Harry’s, though. Harry’s dad is an appalling man. Scary. He has the gall to re-invent himself and get a whole new career on television purely as “Harry’s Dad”, and then spend his whole time slagging Harry off! I just think, “You two-faced git!” That said, Harry’s dad is responsible for 90 per cent of Harry’s humour.’
Higson and Whitehouse write 70 per cent of The Fast Show’s material, the other cast members come up with the rest. Although Higson describes Whitehouse as his ‘best mate’, he adds that they could not be more different in terms of personality. ‘What I admire about Paul is his instant popularity. He’s friendly and gregarious. He improvises and sings constantly. I’m not a funny man. I’m the quiet one in the backroom. But I’m less of a worrier than him. And he’s not desperately ambitious. He lacks confidence in going into areas he hasn’t tried before, like film. He doesn’t want any more fame or money than he’s already got. He thinks he’ll never come up with anything better than The Fast Show. I’m a bit more restless.’
Although Higson may indeed be the opposite of many of the qualities he ascribes to Whitehouse – he may, in other words, be overly ambitious and acquisitive – I suspect he is just as much of a worrier. Just as insecure, in that he suffers from a professional ennui that probably stems from a lack of parental approval – and though Higson cuts quite a languid and amiable figure, he becomes visibly exercised on the subject of Christians whose ‘ludicrous’ belief in an afterlife he holds in contempt. Lately though he has found himself ‘wondering what it is all for’.
He doesn’t think he has necessarily been driven by a secret need to please his father. ‘But since turning 40 I have become conscious of being here for a finite period and having to leave my mark.  What I plan to do next is make a film but that can take three or four years and people are only interested in young film-makers these days, not in middle-aged ones. And I keep thinking, “What will future generations make of me?” Perhaps that is why my children are so important to me. You live on through them. That’s the afterlife. I just hope I don’t fuck up. And I might. Because when you start making films it can take you away from home. Not a nice thought. Yet the other side thinks, “I won’t feel fulfilled if I don’t do it and I’ll just resent the children for holding me back.”‘
The comedian, novelist and producer has been brooding upon how easy it would be to slip into a mid-life crisis – he and Paul Whitehouse have even based a comedy character on someone who does just this. ‘I thought, “What if we become one of those men who in mid-life ditch their family and start dressing like a young person? Fuck!” And then I thought, “Yeah, but you might end up banging a gorgeous 19-year-old girl, so who cares!” Every bloke has to address that one sooner or later because there is such a strong onus on sex and youth and desirability. I’m 41 now and it’s that thing of asking yourself, “Will I never again have sex with a gorgeous 19-year-old girl?” Half of you thinks that and the other half thinks, “Thank God I don’t have the pressure to do that any more.” In the end you just hope you don’t make a fool of yourself. Don’t fuck everything up. That you can keep a shred of dignity. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?’      With this, our Renaissance man checks his watch, pulls a mock-worried face and scrapes back his chair. He apologises if he has been a bore, asks me not to read too much into the father thing and waddles trimly out of the restaurant to merge anonymously with the human traffic of Soho.


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.