Graham Norton, who will be on our television screens almost every night this Christmas, is loud, camp, smutty and peurile. But can he really be that shallow? Nigel Farndale meets him

It would be almost impossible for Graham Norton to be Graham Norton 24 hours a day. If the sheer effort involved in all that braying, hand-flapping, eye-rolling Irish camp didn’t kill him, a member of the public surely would.

So it comes as no surprise that, when I meet him on a winter’s afternoon in a photographers’ studio in Kentish Town, he is all calmness and diffidence.

Even his boyishly round face – squashy nose, beady brown eyes, pouty lips – seems harder and less animated than it appears on the television. The only Graham Norton thing about this Graham Norton is his clothes: he is wearing a schoolboy’s uniform, because The Sunday Telegraph Magazine has asked him to wear one for the Christmas cover.

The shoot over, Norton changes into tight-fit black cords and a tight-fit pale green designer jumper with a large peace sign on the front. We find a sofa in a quiet corner that turns out to be not so quiet when thumping disco music starts up in an adjacent studio. ‘Never mind,’ he says, patting my tape recorder, ‘it’ll sound like we were having a great time when you come to transcribe it.’

With his neatly trimmed sideburns and full head of closely cropped hair (the white patches are because he suffers from vitiligo), with the sheen of foundation that has been applied for our photo shoot, and with his lithe figure (he lost two and half stone a couple of years ago and has kept it off with the help of a personal trainer), Norton looks younger than his 39 years. Clearly he is no stranger to physical vanity, I say, so why on earth did he agree to dress up as schoolboy?

‘I quite liked the idea,’ he says mildly, wrinkling his nose. ‘It’s Christmassy and I think “naughty schoolboy” is what I am about. Where I get bored is when I show up for a shoot and they want me to wear a feather boa. Too obvious a thing for a poof on the telly to do.’ But surely he has done more than anyone in recent years to reinforce that steroetype of gay men? Indeed a section of the gay community is said to resent the way he has followed in the mincing footsteps of Larry Grayson, Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howard, perpetuating the idea that a gay man cannot succeed on television unless he is insanely camp.

‘Yes, well, it’s not a lie, I suppose. I am camp. Lots of gay men can’t cope with thier campness. They are in denial about it. So every gay personal as says “straight acting”.

“How straight acting?” I want to ask them. “Do you sleep with women?” No. I understand it, though, this urge to be seen as straight. Because society places a value on masculinity, gay men aspire to it. If you go to a gay club and the doorman says, “You do realise this is a gay club, don’t you lads?” you get all excited because you think, “Wow, he thought I was straight!”‘

Norton pauses to flick imaginary dust off his knee. ‘That said, I did feel Uncle Tom-ish when the writers who do the opening gags on the show made me play a straight person’s version of a gay man. There’s less of that now. You know, all the anal jokes and innuendo. I went along with it because it got a laugh. I guess I was lazy. I should have made more of a fuss.’

Is it that he is just shallow? ‘Probably. I do get pleasure from very inconsequential things, like shopping for clothes. I think things that are popular are interesting. What appeals to a mass audience, suddenly, overnight, fascinates me. I feel in tune with all that.’

And perhaps this is why Graham Norton is considered the hottest property on British television at the moment, and why he will be on our television screens almost every night over Christmas (Norton turns up again in the new year with a documentary about Shanghai). Not long ago the BBC tried to poach him for £5 million for a two-year contract but he decided to stick with Channel 4 (where he is paid £1 million a year plus bonuses for his five-nights-a-week show, V Graham Norton), because he felt Channel 4 was the natural home for his brand of smutty humour.

Since winning the Best Newcomer prize at the British Comedy Awards in 1997 (after standing in for the Channel 5 talk-show host Jack Docherty, who was expected to win the award and, even more embarrassingly, was sitting at the same table as Norton for the ceremony) Norton has become the face of Channel 4. His viewing figures are high, he has won two Baftas and an Emmy, and he never passes up an opportunity to plumb new depths of bad taste.

To see in the new millennium, for instance, he asked a female guest on his show to fire 12 ping-pong balls from between her legs on the stroke of midnight. In another wheeze he found people with funny names, such as Mrs Djerkoff and Mr Bollacks, and phoned them up.

When Sir Elton John appeared on the show he found himself playing with a vibrator attached to a football and talking on a cuddly-dog telephone to a deranged fetishist in a silver lamé astronaut suit, who reached sexual climax mid-conversation.

Norton’s fans claim that what he does is in the tradition of saucy postcard British humour. His critics say that the jokes about bodily functions might be bearable if only they were packaged with a hint of imagination or humility.

Does he consider himself the apotheosis of vulgarity on television? ‘Usually, if the papers described the awful things we’ve done, I always think, “That sounds great. I’d forgotten how funny that was.” I don’t see the harm in the show. Occasionally we cross a line but we are self-policing. It’s not a discussion programme. It’s childish and innocent. The only test is, is this funny?’

Where does he personally draw the line on, say, pornography? ‘I use it myself but I don’t think you can generalise about pornography because some of it goes to very dark places. When you see a woman performing fellatio on a horse you just think, “I beg you, get a new agent.” But I don’t think the world is getting more evil. I think it’s getting nicer.’

Even so, does he feel no guilt about the part he might have played in dumbing the nation down? ‘I don’t think I’m leading the nation astray. I think the show is reactive. Our show is mainstream. That is where ITV went wrong. They lost touch with what real mainstream is. I think television is playing catch-up with the public. The internet has opened up a strange and interesting world, and I think we are reflecting this rather than introducing viewers to it. If I ever thought our show was harmful, I would be upset.’

The funny thing is, I think he means it. Graham Walker (Norton is a stage name) is a more sensitive and reflective man than you would imagine him to be from seeing the sniggering, self-regarding character he steps into on television. And though he claims to be lazy there is a steeliness and self-reliance about him – perhaps an inevitable consequence of his only having found success after years of failure.

Graham grew up in the market town of Bandon, near Cork. His father, Billy, who worked as a sales rep for Guinness, and his mother, Rhoda, were among the few Protestants living in a mainly Catholic area and sent Graham and his sister Paula (two years his senior) to a Protestant boarding school.

Graham was considered a bright pupil and won a place to read English and French at University College, Cork, only to drop out after a year to live in a hippie commune in San Francisco.

It was run by a bisexual man twice Walker’s age who smoked dope, encouraged his followers to grow their own food and make their own clothes, and subscribed to the principle of free love. After a year Norton returned, went to England and enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama. ‘I wanted to be a serious actor but when I tried to be serious it looked like I had stopped. My brooding silence looked like someone had turned me off.’

Unable to find acting jobs he worked as a barman in London and won a reputation for being witheringly rude to customers, who thought him hilarious. In the early 1990s he decided he would try to earn a living from making people laugh, rather than do it for free. His stand-up work led to him being given a cameo in Father Ted and this in turn led to him standing in for Jack Docherty for one fateful week in 1997. As a consequence Channel 4 gave him his own show, So Graham Norton, the next year.

While at university he had what he describes as a ‘psychotic episode’ in which he locked himself away for several weeks and collected dead flies. How did he not give in to depression during the wilderness years that followed university? ‘I did become a little bitter when I was working as a barman. But since I’ve been working in television there really haven’t been days when I feel down. I’m one of those annoyingly happy people who like their work. I only get miserable when I allow myself to get miserable, on a weekend. I’d be deranged to do what I do in front of an audience if I was prone to depression.’

He thinks he could live without television though, if his career ever fizzled out. ‘I certainly wouldn’t ever stoop to going on Celebrity Big Brother. I have no idea why they do it.’ He grins and covers his mouth with his hand. ‘At the same time, you never know. I wouldn’t be that surprised if I ended up in the house. I don’t know how much you miss fame when it’s taken away. Is it like scoring drugs? Driving around the back alleys of television scoring a bright light? Trouble is, if I was on Celebrity Big Brother I couldn’t behave as I do on my show because there are knives in the house and someone would stab me, mid-afternoon, day one.’

Actually someone did once stab Graham Norton in the chest with a Stanley knife while he was walking through Queen’s Park. The gang of muggers left him for dead and he nearly did die from loss of blood while waiting for an ambulance. ‘My great fear was to die alone,’ he says. ‘Someone to hold your hand. When I thought I was about to die and my body was closing down, I did instinctively ask this [passing] old lady to hold my hand. It didn’t matter who it was. A nurse’s hand would have done. It taught me that you do absolutely need to hold on to life, someone living, as you die. And I’m not a very tactile person. It was very out of character for me.’

This glimpse of his own mortality made him worry about growing old alone. He is said to be very generous and loyal to his friends but something of an island when it comes to relationships. He thinks he’s been in love three times. ‘My version of falling in love is borderline psychotic. Should be avoided at all costs. Get obsessed. Can’t fall in love and function at same time. All-consuming. Tunnel vision. Euphoric.’

Shortly after dropping out of university he nearly married an American girl. He even brought her home to Ireland to meet his family. ‘We were engaged,’ he corrects. ‘Which is not quite the same as nearly married.’ He wasn’t feeling sexually confused at the time, he says. ‘It was a sort of reluctance. Friends kept telling me I was gay and I resented that. I wanted it to be my choice. I did have sex with women. And the woman we are talking about, I would still say I was in love with. I’ve lost touch with her now, though. I saw her six years ago with her husband or boyfriend, and it was odd because she talked to me like an ex boyfriend, and I felt so alien in that role because my life had changed so much.’

His longest relationship, with Scott Michaels, an American producer, lasted for five years. They are still friends but they no longer live together. His fame came between them: Scott later said, ‘Graham’s career always came first.’ He isn’t in a relationship at the moment: ‘Relatively available, but not to live with,’ he says.

Is it that he is difficult to live with? ‘Impossible. All of my day is spent dealing with other people. When I come home I like it to be empty. The presence of others in my house kind of annoys me. I love coming home and shutting the doors. I feel brain-dead.

‘If I go out to dinner after a show, I have nothing to say. I just stare at the food. By the end of the day I’m bored with being Graham Norton. At dinner parties I do tend to sit back quietly because I feel sorry for other guests when I arrive and they say, “Oh fucking hell, this is going to be a nightmare. How annoying, him blabbing on all night.” So I clam up to avoid annoying people.’ Does he annoy himself? ‘I can’t watch repeats of my show,’ he says.

Now that he is rich and famous, does he suspect the motives of potential suitors? ‘Yes. I do. And I make a decision about how much I care! Everyone sleeps with someone for some reason. If you have an interesting job or you have money or you are on the telly, people might find that attractive. That’s OK.’

He never felt comfortable with himself, he says, when he was two and a half stone heavier. Changing his physical appearance helped him feel more confident that people were attracted to him for the right reasons, not just for his fame: ‘I feel less humiliated. It’s already wearing off, though. There was a year when I felt slim and fit. Now when I am out I feel 40 and that’s not a good thing. I lost the weight because of television, though. In life when you leave the house and look in the mirror and think, “I look OK,” you can carry on thinking you look OK all day. On television you see your arse going up the stairs. I was constantly being reflected in an unforgiving mirror. If you aspire to be on television you don’t want to be hard to look at.’

Endearingly, he thinks there’s something rather sexless about him. ‘I’m a sexual tourist,’ he says. ‘That’s how I am when I ask the audience questions. Everyone is interested in everyone else’s sex lives. They are not interested in their own. But I think people are more prepared to talk about sex in this country than they were, so long as it is funny. Serious documentaries about sex are just awful. It has to be funny. Sex is funny. It’s God’s joke: to make you feel like that, you have to do this.’

Norton doesn’t go along with the rather easy analysis that his adult obsession with the subject of sex is a consequence of his repressed Irish Protestant upbringing.

‘I think I was obsessed as a child as well, though. Who knows how Ireland affected me? I did always feel foreign there. Not part of the crowd, which I suppose was something to do with me being Protestant in southern Ireland. And being gay, of course. I was camp even as a child.’

Was his father camp? ‘No. But he was a gentle man. He was a hard worker. I always remember when I moved to London and I proudly showed my parents my favourite shirt shop, which I thought was so cool.

I remember them looking at it so blankly and thinking, “Why the fuck is he showing us that?” It did put it into some perspective. I just happen to like the flim-flam of London.’

Although he says he is gentle like his father, Graham Norton does have one outlet for manly aggression: his car, a black jeep. The interview done, he gives me a lift to the Tube station in it. ‘I am bad in the car,’ he says looking over his shoulder as he reverses. ‘I do lots of shouting with the windows up. Tirades of abuse. I really love it.’ Just as I am beginning to wonder if this is an example of him ‘straight acting’, he adds, reassuringly, ‘I’d be terrified if someone could lip-read, though.’


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.