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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.