Critics may have sent up her ‘sanctimonious and sentimental’ style of presenting. But Esther Rantzen, prospective MP, still isn’t afraid to hug her would-be constituents. Will her touchy-feely tactics work in Luton?

It is 11am on a flat and sunless winter morning and Esther Rantzen is holding a surgery with her constituents in Luton South. To point out that these are not actually her constituents yet, that she is still only the prospective parliamentary candidate rather than the sitting MP, would not only seem churlish and impolite but brave.

For beneath the high camp and flirty bonhomie – she calls everyone she meets ‘m’dear’, ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’ – lies a thin layer of icy determination and single-mindedness. As someone who worked with her once said: ‘Esther’s charm is like a light bulb being switched on and off. There is no natural sunlight.’

Her campaign headquarters, a small, two-room office, is in the town’s shopping centre and was donated to her by a local businessman. (‘Obviously,’ she jokes, ‘I’ll declare it in the register of members’ interests.’) When she opened it, both ITN and the BBC showed up to cover the event, a level of media coverage about which her rivals can only fantasise.

There are posters of Esther in the window advertising her website,, and these remind you that she is one of the few people in public life, Boris and Nigella being others, who has no need of a surname.

She holds these ‘surgeries’ three mornings a week. The idea is that she opens her doors to the public to listen to their concerns, but what actually happens is that she becomes a magnet for the dispossessed, disillusioned and conspiratorial.

Because of the way she throws herself into ‘the people’s problems’, you could be on the set of That’s Life! circa 1981, a time when she was the third most famous blonde in the country, after Margaret Thatcher and Lady Diana Spencer.

She is a vision of calculated empathy. The widened eyes, the fluttering lashes, the head that nods as the mouth purses to denote seriousness, or opens generously into that toothy smile.

Esther Rantzen certainly knows how to talk to people, put them at ease, listen. She even hugs one man. He has been driven to despair by the Child Support Agency (CSA), which is forcing him to sell his house so that he can pay the £7,700 he owes.

When he starts sobbing she tells him to stand up. She then marches over and gives him a hug. And why not? Esther was doing hugs before Cheryl Cole was born. ‘You know what you should do?’ she says to him, looking up into his eyes (she is much shorter than you expect – ‘everyone assumes I am 6ft tall,’ she says). ‘When things look most grim you should find room in your life for something fun. Have you seen the film Up?’ The man shakes his head. Sniffs. ‘You should go and see it with your son. It will take your mind off the CSA, if only for a couple of hours. It will help restore some balance into your life.’ It’s good advice.

There is a lovely moment of confusion when the next Lutonian sits down for a chat. He is in his late thirties, I would say, and wearing a tracksuit and a beanie hat. ‘I like your hat,’ Esther says. ‘Made in Luton?’ ‘Yeah, I was born here.’ When the man has said his bit – about MPs’ expenses, quantitative easing and Agenda 21 – Esther asks him to come back in a month’s time and give her an update. Sensing she is humouring him, he says: ‘You think I’m a nutter.’ The blink. The serious face. ‘Not at all.’

When he leaves, she turns to her computer, which has an esther4luton screensaver logo bouncing around it, and taps in some notes, talking over her shoulder to me. One of the recurring themes of these meet-the-people-of-Luton sessions, she says, is that there are no leisure facilities for either the young or the old. Other concerns include parking, housing, street crime and unemployment.

As she is talking, a man in a cloth cap wanders in and asks for her autograph. ‘Would you rather have “with love” or “best wishes”?’ she asks him, without missing a beat. In many years of watching politicians on the campaign trail, I don’t think I have ever seen one asked for an autograph.

An elderly lady, who is pretty much deaf and says she has to put her glasses on to hear, comes in with ‘evidence’ she has gathered of corruption, but she can’t give any of the details away because it is ‘political dynamite’. It soon becomes apparent that she is what psychologists call a copper-bottomed loon. It ought to be embarrassing, what with me being there taking notes for a national newspaper, but somehow it isn’t.

Esther is unembarrassable. She just smiles that frozen smile of hers, shifting seamlessly from the serious to the frivolous, as she did all those years ago on television.

This is the second occasion I’ve seen her in action. The first begins with an early start at her seven-bedroom Georgian town house in Hampstead. The poster on the fridge here shows all the prime ministers of England. This is not her cramming for the job, but evidence of this being a family home.

She has three children and one or two of them still live here, on and off. The only other hint that this might be the home of a future politician is a photograph of her with Jesse Jackson. Most of the other photographs are of Desmond Wilcox – Dessie, as she called him – her husband who died in 2000.

We head up to Luton with her in the driving seat, behind the wheel of her hybrid car. She tells me not to worry because she is an advanced driver, a course that was given to her as a present. As she drives she tells me about her plans and I am impressed by her ability to multi-task, fielding my questions, pointing out The X Factor house, listening to instructions from her satnav, taking calls from her PA on her hands free.

Although she has two PAs who job share – as well as a team of five volunteers in Luton – she has a tendency to micro-manage her own life. You get the impression that this is a woman who could organise D-Day before breakfast. And she has nothing to prove as a campaigner.

In founding Childline, the 24-hour counselling service for abused children, she produced something of lasting value – it still receives two million calls a year. She even trained as a child counsellor and still does a lot of work for the charity. But you also suspect she is not a good delegator. ‘Domineering’ and ‘controlling’ are words that often crop up in connection with Esther Rantzen.

Her day today begins with a meeting at easyJet, one of the biggest employers in Luton. From here we go to a school and then to a hostel for battered women. It is exhausting just watching her.

There is no doubting her stamina, but you do have to wonder what her real motivation is, to be embarking upon a new, demanding career at the age of 69. Is it about craving an audience? Attention?

This would be understandable – after all, for 21 years she presented and produced one of the most popular shows on British television. An odd mix of consumer campaigning and misshapen vegetables, That’s Life! clocked up audiences of 22 million viewers at its peak.

But semi-retirement and the death of her husband seemed to leave her in an emotional void. She tried to fill it with appearances on Strictly Come Dancing and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! but it yawned ever bigger. It is clear she uses activity as a way of staving off not only ageing but ennui.

When she appeared on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair more than a decade ago she discussed her postnatal depression, her fear of loneliness and her lack of introspection. Dr Anthony Clare noted that: ‘Ours is a narcissistic and voyeuristic world in which for some it can be difficult to be entirely sure one privately exists without some validation from the public world.’ Is that what her desire to become an MP is really about? We shall see.

Luton South was a safe Labour seat until Margaret Moran became one of the most high-profile MPs involved in the expenses scandal, claiming £20,000 in dry rot expenses for a second home in Southampton used by her partner.

It was this that made Esther angry. ‘I’ve got a cottage in the New Forest 10 minutes away from Southampton and so I know that journey. I know how far it is from Luton and know there is no way it can be justified as an expense. I thought, what an insult. I wrote in to a paper saying it was enough to make you want to stand against her. When someone from ITN rang and asked if I would be interested in visiting Luton to look into this, I thought, why not?’

She decided to stand against Moran as an independent. Then Moran announced she would be standing down at the next election.

Esther conferred with Martin Bell. ‘He made it clear his was a protest vote against the sitting Tory MP, and that was why Labour and Lib Dem didn’t stand against him. He said I should have waited to see who was the most notorious king or queen of expenses still standing and stand against them.’

Why didn’t she heed his advice? One reason, she admits, is that Luton is only half an hour from where she lives. ‘Had it been Glasgow East it would have been impossible for me. But more importantly, I fell in love with Luton. People in the street greeted me so warmly. I was touched and impressed. They kept telling me they didn’t feel listened to and that Moran was invisible.The more I saw Luton, the more I loved it. I love its history and its warmth and its ethnic diversity.’

History? ‘Famous for its hats.’ Luton is about two thirds Asian, with one of the highest Muslim populations in Britain. How does her being Jewish go down? ‘I went to a mosque and sat with a group of imams. I said: “Look I’m a 69-year-old Jewish woman, can I represent you?” And they said: “Of course you can, we’re British. All we want is for people to talk things through with us.” I think people are pretty practical. They just want someone to do the job.’

What about the Muslims in Luton who heckled the parading soldiers? ‘But it wasn’t the community in Luton doing that, it was a few people who were militant in their beliefs. I’ve had lots of Lutonians say: “That does not reflect what our community thinks.”’

A number of voters I spoke to said they thought she might be a good person to have as an MP because she is famous. She would get the town noticed in Westminster. When I tell her this she nods. ‘What I’ve been doing for the past 40 years is accessible. That will stand against me in terms of people who won’t like what I have done. On the other hand, they may be outweighed by those who like my record on child protection, or whatever.’

Either way, she will have some tricky opponents, including a new Labour candidate, Gavin Shuker, Nigel Huddleston for the Tories and a Lib Dem Luton councillor, Qurban Hussain. When we pull into a petrol station, she tells me she has to keep a record of all her expenses. ‘There are regulatory limits on how much you can spend in a campaign.

I can’t claim expenses but obviously you have to find the money from somewhere and people assume I am a rich television cat, but actually I’m an ex-rich television cat who doesn’t have the kind of spare money needed to run a campaign. I am working with volunteers, but they can’t afford to be volunteers indefinitely. I have to find a model, to see whether people who approve of the idea of an independent fighting a seat are prepared to pay to have someone with new skills and useful life experiences fight their corner. I am hoping people will offer small donations. I’m not new to fundraising.’

As to the specific policies she will be fighting on, she is keeping her powder dry. ‘The major parties haven’t brought out their manifestos yet so there is no point me rushing out with one. There is no point me making statements now that may soon become out of date. But in terms of national issues, obviously I am interested in child protection. And the expenses process – that needs to be transparent.’

Having reverted to her natural brunette hair colouring after an experiment with red and years of being blonde, and having made plain her approval of Botox, it is clear Esther cares about her appearance. Today she is wearing a leather jacket and pearls. ‘You do have to think about how you look. You want to be businesslike but not intimidating.

‘When I started in television, journalists would ask to do items about my clothes and I would say certainly not, because I want to be taken seriously. But now I have learnt that people take you at your own estimation and if you walk out looking like a pile of old washing they will think that is how you think of yourself. And that in turn is how they will think of you.’

At the school, the headmaster says something to me that makes me smile, for the wrong reasons. He says the trouble with the sitting MP is that she has no authority left since the expenses scandal. ‘She has no teeth.’

There is another poignant moment when Esther has to explain to a group of nine year-olds who she is, or was. ‘I made a programme which once featured a dog that could say “sausages”,’ she explains. This only makes them look more confused.

Afterwards, I say to Esther that realising these children had never heard of the dog who said sausages made me feel old. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘That is why I did I’m a Celebrity, I had realised that when I was talking about Childline to children, I no longer had the link I had had with previous generations, so I thought if I do a show like that, a new generation will know who I am. Quite a lot of them talk to me about the jungle.’

Esther Rantzen was born in June 1940 into a family of liberal Jews in north London. Her father was a BBC sound engineer; her mother was the governor of a day nursery. Educated at Somerville College, Oxford, Esther joined the BBC as a secretary in 1963 and soon became a researcher.

In 1967, Desmond Wilcox asked her to join Man Alive, where she became a trainee director. They embarked on an affair that lasted for about eight years. Wilcox’s wife found out and he moved in with Esther. They married in 1977, a month before the first of their children was born.

In 2001, when Esther published her autobiography, she became embroiled in a public spat with her stepdaughter, Cassandra Wilcox, who was unhappy with Esther’s scathing comments about her mother. Cassandra vented her contempt for Esther in a newspaper interview.

I ask how her relationships with her stepchildren are these days. ‘When I’m in Australia I try to see them. And the twins, I last saw them at a family wedding, which was nice. Cass, the oldest, I haven’t seen for a while. She was invited to Bec’s wedding [Esther’s daughter] but they were away.’ Does she regret opening that wound? ‘Yes, I wrote the autobiography at the time Dessie died and there were things that he wanted to say, things that had hurt him. Would I write it now? No.’

Before she had the affair with Wilcox she had one with Nicholas Fairbairn MP. What did she learn from him about the political world? ‘Nothing.’ Too young? ‘I think he was a barrister then. What I did learn about was the law. That a clever defence lawyer can run rings around the police. Nicholas was a dandy. He designed his own bowler hats.’

Ah. Hats again. And her preoccupation with them explained. Perhaps.

What would her husband have made of her becoming an MP? ‘Dessie tended to be the voice of sanity, but if he saw I was determined he’d support me. And it would be easier if he were alive because he was very practical and efficient. If there was a big decision to make we’d make it together.’

Esther appears to be someone who needs constant stimulation and deadlines to avoid the boredom of contemplation, of being with herself.

Is that what this is about, this need for a workload? She thinks about it, rolling her tongue against her teeth. ‘I do thrive on adrenalin. When I first said I was going to stand as an MP, Edwina Currie was quoted as saying that Esther doesn’t know about hard work. I thought, but then Edwina doesn’t know about presenting and producing a consumer show for 25 years.’

There is no love lost between the two women, another feud. Esther once said: ‘Fishnets are many things, but elegant they are not. I think they are quite sluttish. In the Eighties, I did go through an Edwina Currie stage of wearing them.’ Me-ow!

Esther will turn 70 within weeks of winning her seat in Luton, if she does indeed win it. Does that worry her? ‘Turning 70? I will be a mere laughing child. Do I think about that? Never.’

Esther Rantzen seems to be something of a Marmite figure, someone the public loves or, because of the mawkishness, self-promotion and sanctimoniousness they remember from her That’s Life! years, loathes.

I warmed to her. She may be a megalomaniac but she also has a pleasing line in self-deprecation and she certainly has fire in her belly. As to her motives, I suspect she thinks a late career as an MP would make for a pleasing coda to a colourful career.

But that’s not to say she wouldn’t be good at the job. A couple of weeks after we meet, she rings to say that the man who was being hounded by the CSA has had his case resolved happily. Esther had mobilised the local press, accompanied him to court and got them to back down on forcing him to sell his house. I imagine she would also put Luton on the map… if she survives that long.

She tells me she plans to walk the streets of the city centre at night to assess for herself how serious the problem of street violence is there. ‘I’m going with a kid who said he didn’t feel safe. I’ve asked the police and they have said it’s OK. I should be safe enough. There are plenty of CCTVs.’ Of course there are. And a camera is a camera.


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.