Dame Diana Rigg may be 70 this month but she still drives a Mercedes sports car, smokes 20 a day and swears by a bottle of Merlot before bedtime. The spirit of Emma Peel lives on, finds Nigel Farndale.

There is a low-boughed tree in the Chelsea Physic Garden that bears strange blossom: a tall, broad-shouldered woman with a straight spine and a thick bob of dyed blonde hair. It is Dame Diana Rigg, and she is standing under the tree, with her head in the branches, because our photographer has asked her to. When she emerges picking petals from her hair, she looks to the overcast sky and says, ‘This flat light is very good for a woman of my age.’

Since she mentions it, she turns 70 this month. And although she looks her age in a way that, say, Julie Christie, her fellow 1960s sex symbol, does not, her strong features – retroussé nose and high cheekbones, down-turned eyes and mouth – are still softly handsome. Dressed in pin-stripe trousers and a red jacket, and with only a suggestion of make-up, she seems comfortable with herself. Too dignified to be vain. Not the cosmetic surgery type. (Actually, that’s not quite true. She had the wrinkles around her eyes removed when she was 44, but that was it.)

She lights a cigarette, getting one in before lunch. The last time we met, a decade ago, when she was in Ted Hughes’s adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre, people were still allowed to smoke in restaurants, and boy did she make the most of that. She still smokes 20 a day, but is relaxed about the smoking ban in public places. We debate whether to eat here at the Physic Garden – she is a member – or round the corner at Foxtrot Oscar. She opts for the latter because they mix a good bloody Mary there.

As we walk, we talk about Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. She has just finished a run of it at Chichester – ‘Got a right old buffeting from the critics, but I loved it and we played to 74 per cent capacity, so up yours critics’ – and is now about to head off for the summer to her place in France, south-east of Bordeaux. There she will cook for friends, read, listen to music and swim naked in her pool. At night she listens to the owls. She feels freer there than in her Kensington flat, more at ease. Because she always despised herself for not speaking fluent French, she took herself off to the Lycée to learn it. ‘I’m still chary of speaking French outside France, though.’

At the restaurant she orders her bloody Mary and tells me that the mayor of the French village asked if he could hunt wild boar in the land that goes with her house. ‘So they all came in their vans with their dogs and blew their horns and killed two adult wild boar, mother and father. Very medieval. Carried them out of the wood on a stick, but one of the young boars escaped and took refuge under my neighbour’s bed. The saying in the village was that she had the pig under her bed, whereas normally he is on top of it.’ She laughs at the joke. She is in a good mood, an end-of-term frivolity. Phew. She can be glacial when she wants to be, as a few interviewers have discovered over the years.

When the drink arrives, she asks for another slice of lemon and says, ‘I don’t normally drink at lunchtime. I’m not saying that defensively, I just don’t. And in the evening I never drink before six, an old habit acquired from my father.’ She makes up for it after that, though, believing in ‘red before bed’. A £3.99 bottle of Chilean merlot gives you the best night’s sleep in the world, she reckons. It’s like being hit over the head. She wakes up 10 hours later, feeling like a spring lamb.

Though she describes herself as ‘hopelessly un-neurotic’ and thinks she might be a better actress if she were more neurotic, she does have a sudden and explosive temper, and the angrier she gets the more articulate she becomes. She is intolerant of queue-jumpers, litter-droppers and bad-mannered people generally. When driving, she will roll down her window and yell, ‘Thank you!’ to people she has let into a line of traffic. I get a taste of this sharpness now, or rather the waitress does, when she appears and says, ‘I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’d like to talk you through the specials on the menu.’

‘I think we can read,’ Rigg says. ‘Thank you so much.’

‘But they change each day,’ the waitress says, staggering back slightly. When the waitress goes, Rigg explains her shortness with people. With her, things have to be said. She’s no good at bottling up her feelings. But she is good at saying sorry and she never sulks.

I tell her I found clips of her on YouTube from her various appearances on Parkinson – on one of which she said that her greatest pleasure in life came from biting her baby’s bottom – to scenes from The Avengers, the television series as synonymous with the 1960s as are the Mini and the Beatles. I had forgotten how psychedelic those shows were, how surreal the humour – she would end a fight scene by picking up her knitting.

‘Oh yes, my daughter sends me YouTube clips. Not of me. Funny stuff. It all sounds like rubbish the stuff they have of me. It’s a horrible thought that they are on there. I’m also a mouse pad and a screen-saver. Am I supposed to be flattered? All these old images of me floating across the screen, the terrible chasm of what you were and what you are. I know who I am, but these people who see me as I was then don’t. There is always one thing that turns you into an icon, an iconic image, in my case a catsuit. But the icon 40 years later doesn’t really want to know because it’s not relevant to me. Some of those early photographs of me might as well be sepia. It’s always thought that I disclaim television and am too theatre, but the truth is The Avengers bores me now. I was grateful because it catapulted me into stage stardom. It was good. I’m not ashamed of it. But I only did it for two years.’

The leather catsuit was ‘a total nightmare’; it took 45 minutes to get it unzipped. Like struggling in and out of a wetsuit. Once she got into the jersey catsuits, they were easy to wear but she had to watch for baggy knees. Nothing worse.

At Rada she had trained as a classical actress and afterwards she had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. It sounds like she planned to use television as a way of boosting her stage career. ‘Not at all. I left the RSC not knowing what I was going to do and ended up getting a telly job with Harry Corbett, only because the director’s wife had been cast opposite him and she had to drop out. After that, my agent put me up for The Avengers and I didn’t have telly, so I didn’t know what it was. When it came out, I was suddenly famous. It was startling. From being anonymous, I was mobbed.’

She certainly was. Once she had to hide in the lavatory at the Motor Show. And in Germany police resorted to batons to hold back the fans. Slavering fan mail was another problem. She would get her mother, Beryl, to field the letters. The replies were usually along the lines of: ‘Those aren’t very nice thoughts. And besides, my daughter is too old for you. I suggest you take a run around the block.’ People still send her Avengers photos to sign, but she refuses. ‘I feel such a phony. That is not me. That is another person.

‘Fame was different then, she adds. ‘Nowadays people court fame, Big Brother-type fame; in those days we didn’t know how to court fame. There weren’t the channels to court fame, the publicists. I just hope the people getting their 15 minutes now are putting their money in the building society.’

When I ask if fame is hollow, she shakes her head. ‘I’m not the best person to ask because, whatever form it has taken for me, it has always been attached to my career. I’ve always tried to avoid any vestige of it touching my private life. It has always been separate. I step into a character in my public life. People who don’t make that distinction are dooooomed.’ (This is a trait of hers: she stretches her vowels elastically but not camply; her voice is far too deep and smoky and unhurried for that.) ‘There is still that small centre of me that has never been touched by fame, never photographed, written about or discussed. So when I sit next to a stranger at a dinner party and they feel they know something about me, I know they don’t.’

In retrospect, she wishes she had allowed herself to enjoy fame more than she did. ‘I should have handled it better. Had more fun. Not naughty fun. But just, you know. I sometimes think, when I look back on those days: why didn’t I have more confidence? Why didn’t I know I was pretty good-looking? It is probably to do with my Yorkshire upbringing. Always thinking that people might be saying, “Who does she think she is?”‘

She was born in Doncaster in 1938, but her parents were based in India and she was taken back there after her birth. Her father, Louis Rigg, was a railway engineer who worked for the Maharaja of Bikaner, Ganga Singh. When Rigg was shipped back to gloomy Yorkshire and boarding school in 1945, she felt like a fish out of water. Still, Yorkshire, she believes, played a much greater part in shaping her character than India did. It was a tradition in her household, for example, that you always had to have a slice of bread and butter without jam before you could have one with. Very Yorkshire, that.

Does she keep a diary? ‘I don’t and I wish I did because the past is pretty unknown to me. I have so lived for the present that I can’t remember the details. Smells and sounds can transport me and then I remember. I don’t keep memorabilia or photograph albums.’

Her daughter, Rachael Stirling, is also an actress, one with a successful career (she starred in Tipping the Velvet). She looks and sounds like her mother. Was it inevitable that she would follow her into acting? ‘Her dad and I did say, “Here we go. Fairly inevitable.” But we said she must go to uni first, so she read history of art at Edinburgh.’

Is there any rivalry between mother and daughter? ‘No, I don’t think so. I feel more that the baton has been handed on. She doesn’t use my surname, but she does look very like me.’

Rigg gave up working to raise her daughter; would she recommend that Rachael do the same if she has children? ‘The work-life balance, you mean? I wouldn’t advise her on anything, she’ll do it her way. I might take over the baby if she is away. The world has changed mightily; in my mother’s day you were made to feel guilty if you went out. Now everyone is left to work it out for themselves. Actually, acting was quite compatible with motherhood. I could take her to school when doing theatre. The evening was a problem, obviously. But I could always put her to bed when I was doing a film or TV. I don’t think my profession made any difference with her, though. My divorce? I’m not sure.’

Her first marriage was in 1973 to Menahem Gueffen, an Israeli painter; her first divorce was three years later. She married again in 1982 to a Scottish landowner, Archie Stirling, and had Rachael at the age of 39. The marriage broke up in 1990, after Stirling had an affair with the actress Joely Richardson. Rigg has stayed on good terms with her former husband. And when we met last time she said, ‘I’m slightly aghast that you see before you a twice-divorced woman. I’m shocked. It’s not how I saw myself, how I imagined things would work out, not what I believe in.’ Now she seems more at ease with the idea. When she was young, she says, women were considered incomplete without a husband, and it has taken her many years to come to the tranquil conclusion that life can be complete without a man after all.

She seems to know herself well, if that doesn’t sound like too crass a comment. She understands what makes her tick and is unsentimental and matter-of-fact about herself. She thinks she is probably quite ‘anal’ – actually, that is what her daughter thinks and she goes along with it. Her greatest fear is being ‘a dithering, dribbling old bag, having to rely on help for everything’. Her greatest disappointment is her film career – ‘or lack of – but it’s too late now.’ The single thing that would improve the quality of her life would be to no longer have creaking joints: in the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, in 1987, there was an 11-minute tap routine in high heels that permanently damaged her knees.

Today, Rigg seems to be regarded by audience and critics alike as the most daring, intelligent and inspired tragedienne on the London (and New York) stage. But it wasn’t until she was in her fifties that she hit her stride, playing three award-winning leads in succession: Medea (1992-94); Mother Courage (1995) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1996). Rigg’s performance as Medea was a career peak. She won a London Evening Standard Theatre Award and Tony Award for Best Actress. In it she played a vengeful wife who kills her estranged husband’s children. Coincidental though the timing was, she had just separated from her husband.

In Phèdre, she played the queen who falls in love with her stepson, only to find that her husband still lives. Jealousy induces her to send him to his death, but her conscience forces her to admit her guilt before dying herself. ‘With Phèdre it was typical Ted [Hughes] – muscular, strong writing – there is nothing Ancient Greek wafty about it. It grabs you like a pair of eagle’s claws. It was a huge privilege working with him. He died during the run of the play. The night he died, we were playing it. Such poignancy – because he knew he was dying and he said to the cast, “I go to bed happy because Phèdre is on stage.” He had been so attacked by the feminists who blamed him for Sylvia’s suicide. They felt he had driven her to it by his infidelity. He was like an oak and I can quite see why women threw themselves at him. His poetic soul and that wonderful voice that came from his boots.’

Her own soul is pretty poetic. She is, she says, easily moved by the thought of young men fighting and dying for their country. Whenever she visits the battlefields of the First World War she is reduced to tears. ‘They are so silent, hardly any birdsong, big open fields, it is as if nature is paying reverence.’ At the moment, the news images of Union flag-draped coffins coming out of RAF transporter planes fills her with terrible despair and anger. She joined the march against the war in Iraq and says that she now feels betrayed by Blair. ‘Did he seduce me? Yes. He, generally speaking, courted my profession. But I now disavow.’

Her father was a Conservative. So is her brother, a retired RAF Harrier test pilot. She is a crossbencher. ‘I wish I could feel sorry for Gordon Brown, but I can’t. He was the understudy who got the role but didn’t understand it. Didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t learn his lines or know his moves. I heard an alternative comedian say that even when Gordon smiles he looks like he’s sh–ting a sea anemone, and that’s about right. The breathing? It’s a tic. A habit. He inhales and his bottom lip goes with it. He could easily see an acting coach and get rid of it, but I imagine he is too busy with other things.’

She is a big Barack Obama fan and thinks John McCain is too old for the job. ‘I know I should be saying the opposite because I’m the same age as him, but I do think his age will make a difference. At 70, you aren’t as physically robust as you were. I don’t think your mental capacities are as good as they were. The President should be a younger man with older advisers.’ I remind her that the last time we met she had been telling me that she intended to get a pensioner’s bus pass. Did she? Actually, she says with a quick smile, she drives.

I have to say I do not recognise the woman who, in 2002, was attacked by the Daily Mail as ’embittered’. She had gone into retirement, the paper claimed, and was living ‘the life of a recluse’ in France. The article was accompanied by a grim photograph of her clutching a baguette. The caption read: ‘Shopping for one.’ She had been followed to her remote village and secretly photographed. She sued the newspaper for libel and won £38,000 damages, which she donated to charity.

That said, she does quite enjoy silence and her own company. She is still a keen fly-fisher, a solitary sport. ‘I don’t have a river any more. I did have when I was married, on my husband’s estate. Now I just fish whenever I am invited anywhere. I’m a fishing tart.’ She is still the chancellor of Sterling university, though she stands down this year. ‘I’m not an academic, but I would have loved to have been one. I love the dinners with professors. You learn all sorts of things. I can tell you all about the mites that attack salmon. I can even tell you what happens in the lochs with the mounds of fish excrement.’

The life of an actor has never been secure, she says, because actors never really know from one year to the next what they will be doing. ‘But the grave danger is to fall into the trap of thinking you cease to exist if you no longer have a job. Obviously, economics has a bearing on this. But you must fill your life with as many alternatives as possible to your job, because without that you are going to be an empty vessel.’ So what does she have lined up next? ‘Nothing next.’ She says with a laugh. ‘But I still exist.’

Afterwards, as I am waiting for a taxi in Chelsea, I hear a woman calling my name. It is Rigg in the driving seat of a new-looking, sky-blue Mercedes sports car. Can she give me a lift anywhere? So much for the bus pass, I think. Just then a taxi arrives and she gives an ironic salute goodbye. It is a very Emma Peel moment. I think she was even wearing sunglasses and may have had a cigarette in her hand. Either way, she looked like the coolest damned 70-year-old I’ve ever seen.


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.