There is a story in Jack Dee’s autobiography, Thanks for Nothing, which has been haunting me since I read it. Because he was a ‘very low achieving pupil’ at Pilgrims’ prep school in Winchester, he was picked on by one of his teachers. This teacher would make the young Dee stand on a chair and then say things like: ‘Dee by name, D by nature.’ The rest of the class would laugh and point.

Dee took his revenge, coldly and systematically. ‘I would go around the classrooms during break and if one of the boys from my little blacklist was there, unattended by a member of staff, I’d simply walk up to him and before he could say: “What do you want?” would punch him in the face.’ The more people he attacked, the angrier and more isolated he became.

‘It was like a fire that had started inside me. I really hated fighting people and hurting them, but felt unable to stop.’ I know, not what you expect, is it? The Jack Dee with whom we are familiar from stand-up comedy and television may scowl, but you assume his misanthropy is an act.

In person, he is friendly enough, if a little halting in his delivery. Today he is wearing a baseball jacket rather than the suit and tie of his stage persona.

He is 47 and stands at 5ft 10in, ‘allowing for a two-inch margin of error’. His features are set into an expression of surly anger at the world. He says ‘mm’ a lot, but whether in agreement or disagreement it is hard to determine. This, given how funny he is on stage, is unnerving. You wish he would crack a smile, then you realise with a start that he is smiling – and this is even more unnerving.

‘It was quite dysfunctional,’ he says now of his school days. ‘But it was my response as a child to an unhappy situation. I don’t think I realised until long after I had left that school quite why I did it.’

This cold anger had nothing to do with his background, by the way. His father was an executive in a paper firm and life was, he says, comfortable.

‘And happy. Nothing unhappy about my background at all. I think possibly, knowing myself better now, the anger was to do with creative frustration. I had no outlet for my creativity.’

The teenage Jack Dee failed common entrance and ended up at a comprehensive where he didn’t fit in because he was considered ‘posh’ for having gone to a prep school. He then flunked his A-levels. While his peers went on to university he went from one unpromising job to another, including working in an artificial leg factory.

He didn’t discover comedy until 1986, the year he met Jane, his future wife and the mother of his four children. On an impulse, he walked into the Comedy Store and took advantage of the ‘open mic’ slot at the end of the evening to have a go at stand-up.

He wasn’t exactly sure why he did it that night other than a feeling he had that his sense of humour was nagging at him ‘like an impossible toddler’. But he didn’t have a single thing to say. Not one joke. ‘It’s the kind of thing you wake up from, sweating, heart thumping, hugely relieved to realise that it was just a nightmare.’

The act before him was booed off. The crowd was baying for blood. He stood there at the mic and someone shouted: ‘Come on, tell us a joke.’ Quite belligerently he said: ‘No’. And the audience laughed. Then a question popped in his head. ‘Anyone here from Finland?’ The audience sat there with expectant grins. He waited until the silence felt awkward then said: ‘Well that’s my act buggered then.’ This got an even bigger laugh.

Still, to go up there with no material prepared. What manner of masochism was this? ‘Yeah, it was a strange situation to have got myself into. I was compelled to it. It was an appointment I couldn’t get out of and it was getting closer and closer.

‘I think I was drawn to that which frightened me most. I was chasing it down. I was so keen to become a comedian that actually doing the comedy itself almost came second.’

Another disturbing layer to Jack Dee the man, as opposed to Jack Dee the comedian, is the realisation that behind the miserable act he plays up to on stage and screen lies genuine and clinical depression.

He sees a therapist. He takes medication. At one point he thought his depression was caused by his drinking, which he says was out of control, but in 1990, after six years of AA, he realised that drink was not the problem. Depression was the problem. And the only way he could keep it at bay was to throw himself into work.

Work would set him free. When I ask him about this, on an overcast afternoon in the office in Soho where he does his writing, he says: ‘Work is a self-preservation matter for me. Without it I slide into depression. If you have the impulse to be creative, you ignore it at your peril. If I get depressed now it is because I am not doing enough creatively.’

And he uses his misanthropy and depression as a comedic conceit? ‘I think it is more a cautiousness that protects me from enthusiasm about things. I tend not to get excited. People perceive it as a scowl, which is fair enough.’

This was the making of him as a comedian. Everything he said sounded arch and funny. When he tried to be jolly it sounded even more sarcastic.

Even so, you would think he could afford to be a little bit happy with how things turned out. Is it, I ask, like the Oscar Wilde quote: there are two types of tragedy, not getting what you want and getting it? ‘Nothing tops the feeling of discovering comedy,’ Dee says. ‘But everything after that was tempered with a feeling that I was not doing things as well as I would like to.

‘I never feel: “Oh great, now I’ve got my TV show”, or whatever. I’ve never ever been excited by any of that. I remember the first series I was offered at Channel 4. I just said: “Oh, that’s good.” And after I left the room, apparently the Channel 4 guy grabbed my agent’s arms and said: “Is he taking the p— or something?” It was because I didn’t react. Didn’t look happy. Wasn’t pleased. Didn’t even say thank you.’

So he didn’t feel happy even then? ‘No, I didn’t really. Too cautious to let go. I think it was more a feeling of: “I have got to deliver now.” To sit back and enjoy it is alien to me. I have a weird inability to enjoy myself.’

He must be a barrel of laughs to live with. ‘Possibly I am difficult to live with, but I don’t bring my work home much. I’m either busy or not busy. And I don’t work from home. I have an office here which has a white wall. No view. I did try working in a room with a view but it was too interesting. Too distracting.’

I am fairly certain there were no ghost writers involved in his book, which is unusual for a celebrity memoir. Only he could have written it because it has his comic timing and dry humour. He explains that he lives in a detached Victorian house in Wandsworth, for example, but ‘Like many bastards, I have a second home in the country’.

The book is an engaging mix of self-deprecating anecdotes and stark revelations. Did he like the young man he encountered in his memoirs? ‘Yeah, I felt the need to deal with him compassionately. Not mock myself. There is a journey there.’ As the jacket says, you don’t wake up bitter and jaundiced. It takes years of dedication and commitment.

There are some tender almost poetic passages, too. At one point he describes breaking up with a girlfriend on the phone. ‘When she phoned me it was as if the meter was running, a clock ticking, time being marked until she could reasonably say goodbye and go. I could hear, in her cracked, short answers, the sound of broken love.

‘Inevitably, the final conversation came. Two people talking through wire, one in an empty London flat, the other sitting on the busy stairs of temporary digs. Four hundred miles apart and talking about needing more space. The words were awkwardly handed over, like a child surrendering stolen sweets.’

Religion has always been just below his surface. He only grew out of what he calls his ‘Carrie phase’ at school after he had a religious epiphany of sorts, a feeling of calmness while sitting in Winchester Cathedral one day contemplating a statue of Christ.

‘I remember wanting to look away but being unable to.’ Yet, though he felt a certain ‘longing’ and was drawn to prayer, he found it as disturbing as swimming with bricks tied to his feet. He even considered ordination at one point and went to discuss it with the director of ordinands for Westminster. It didn’t work out.

‘I was in a spiritual vacuum. I didn’t feel empty so much as unmotivated. I felt I was on the wrong train and didn’t know what station to get off at. What I felt most was a mounting realisation that life is too precious not to be spent pursuing what you ought to be pursuing. In many ways it was a positive force because it drove me. The sense of being lost was a self-preservation. It was a voice telling me: you haven’t found yourself yet.’

When he is working on Lead Balloon, the wry BBC sitcom he writes with Pete Sinclair, Dee is disciplined about spending time in this office, unlike Rick Spleen, the character he plays. Spleen is a hopeless procrastinator who complicates his life needlessly with excruciating lies. He is also almost pathologically parsimonious.

Dee describes Spleen as being a ‘what if’ version of himself. ‘There is a part of me that can be very stingy and it drives Jane mad. What Rick has, which I don’t have, is that capacity to be excited by things. He gets excited only to be bashed down when things go wrong. Maybe I fear things going wrong so much that I pre-empt them by not getting excited about them when they appear to be going well.’

Spleen is an indulgent father; is Dee unpushy as a parent as well? ‘The only thing I care about is that they don’t waste their time. I have to be careful not to push my own anxieties on to them and they would probably be happy if they were more relaxed than me.’


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.