Jerry Springer’s stranger-than-fiction life has seen him move from politics to trash TV, surviving scandal after scandal to become an unlikely voice of reason in an unreasonable world. But how will that voice hold up when he takes the stage in Chicago?


This may sound ingratiating, mainly because it is, but as I’m leaving the house to meet Jerry Springer for breakfast in Soho, I remember a small metal brooch I have somewhere and go back to dig it out. It’s one of those Stars and Stripes presidents have in their lapels, only this one is crossed with a Union Flag. I picked it up in 2003 – that strained time in Anglo-American relations – and I have never found the right occasion to wear it, until now.

When Springer, a trim 65-year-old with collar length, silvery-blonde, centre-parted hair, notices it, he leans across the table and, being long-sighted, lifts his glasses up to his forehead, so that he can see it better. ‘God love you,’ he says with an easy smile. ‘I’m right in the middle. A true Anglophile. Born in Britain, raised in America. You knew that, right?’ I did know that. He was born in an East Finchley Tube, during an air raid in 1944.

I also know that the talk-show host feels comfortable here: likes the tea; likes the humour; likes the politics (he began his career as a politician, a Democratic mayor of Cincinnati, before becoming a local television news anchorman). And I know he (mostly) appreciated Jerry Springer: The Opera, an extravagant joke at his expense, or rather, a uniquely British take on his notorious American daytime, blue-collar television show – the one featuring assorted inbreeding, punch-throwing, exhibitionist trailer trash.

(The opera, more a musical, featured a nappy-wearing Jesus declaiming he was ‘a little bit gay’, and when the BBC screened it in 2005, it prompted 63,000 complaints amid claims that it was blasphemous.) Such are Springer’s bona fides as an Anglophile, he has spoken at the Oxford Union, appeared as a guest on Any Questions and Question Time and been the subject of Who Do You Think You Are? He wept on camera when he learned that his grandparents had been tortured and killed by the Nazis at Theresienstadt concentration camp. And from June 1, for six weeks only, he has, to his surprise – because he can neither sing nor dance much – accepted a role in a West End musical, Chicago.

We shall come to that. For now we are talking about how our attitudes to Americans have changed since Barack Obama came to power. ‘Before, when I would come over here, I would sense a hostility to Americans. Now that Bush has gone you can sense the good will. Hey, we’ve got Obama. Who is cooler than Obama? I know the anti-Americanism was only on the British left, but even there I think most of you guys accepted that if you are going to have a bully in the world, America is not a bad bully to have.

‘I never noticed the animosity being personal towards Americans, though. I guess it’s like being angry at your parents – ultimately you know they are on your side.’

Oof! A little patronising perhaps, but we’ll let it go. While Springer doesn’t think too much should be read into Obama returning that statue of Churchill to us, he can see that there might be a parallel between the new president’s attitude to the British – informed by his grandfather’s persecution in colonial Kenya – and his own attitude to Germany, informed by the Holocaust (Springer’s mother, a bank clerk, and his father, a shoe shop owner, were forced to leave their parents behind when they fled Nazi Germany for England in 1939).

‘But I don’t hold it against modern Germans, just as I don’t imagine Obama would hold what happened to his family against the modern Brits. I recognise clearly, having been there, that the people responsible, the Nazis, have long gone. This wasn’t always the case. When I first went there in the Sixties, right out of law school, every time I saw a man in his fifties or sixties waiting tables I thought, could he be a former Nazi? It reminds you that this happened within my lifetime. This wasn’t something from a thousand years ago. It reminds you that, if it could happen there, in one of the most civilised countries in the world, it could happen anywhere.’

Springer believes his Jewish identity enables him to identify with the marginalised and dispossessed that he has on his show. ‘No question. Why have I always been such a liberal? I’m convinced it is because of my family Holocaust experience. It has taught me never to judge people on what they are, only on what they do. If people could live by that, there would be no discrimination in the world.’

Ah, his first homily of the interview! For those who haven’t seen his show – for people who have jobs, say – there is always a moment at the end when the tears dry and the teeth stop gnashing, a moment when Springer stands back and reflects. What have we learned here today? It is this that (sort of) makes it OK to watch the exploitational parade of low IQ misfits that is The Jerry Springer Show.

Clearly, he is an educated and urbane man, one with nice manners and a warm and crinkly personality. With him in charge the programme doesn’t feel like quite so voyeuristic and seedy, doesn’t feel as if you have come to stare at the lunatics in the asylum. Incidentally, what does he see as being the difference between what he does, and what went on at Bedlam Hospital, a mile or so from where we are sipping tea this morning?

‘Well, for one thing, people on our show volunteer to do it. People come on because they want to get something off their chest. They say: “You can hoot and you can holla all you want, but I’m going to say this.” I would never go on the show. You would never go on the show. But 10 per cent of the population of America would. I hate the snootiness of looking down on people like that. Be honest, when you meet a snob at a cocktail party you are thinking, he’s a fine one to talk.’

But is it fair to say that his role is like that of the Greek chorus? We look on these chaotic events, the swearing, the chairs being thrown, through him. He allows us to indulge our morbid curiosity, legitimising it because he has had a good education, he is one of us. ‘My role is to stay out of the way. The less I talk, the better the show is. I’m totally non-threatening. I’m the guy next door. I just bring out the acts. I’m non judgmental.’

What about when he gives a platform to a bigot – does he find himself judging them?

‘Me? Absolutely not. Nor do I ever endorse what they do or say. I can’t recall one occasion where I said something like: “You know, incest is great, give it a shot.” ‘

So he never wakes up in a cold sweat at 3am and thinks, I’m going to burn in hell for this? He grins. Nods. Acknowledges the reference to Jerry Springer: The Opera. ‘Look, the show – and I have to keep emphasising that it is a show, a show, a show – is about people who are outrageous and outside the norm. I’m hired to do a show about dysfunction. But if you watch the 18 years of shows, I think you would be hard pressed to find an example of me being mean or disrespectful. When all the media is coming down on them, saying “How can you give these people air time?”

‘I want to say, “What is the difference between you and the people on this show?” You dress better. You are richer. You had a better education. In the genetic lottery you had better parents, but you didn’t choose your parents. It was luck. What’s the difference between a person on my show and me, or you? Luck.’

It smacks of an intelligent man trying to justify to himself a job of which he is, if not actually ashamed, then certainly not proud. I suspect he feels cursed by the show’s huge ratings – 25 million viewers in the US, and many more in the 40 or so countries it is screened in around the world. He uses humour to deflect this unease, joking that he thinks it saves defence dollars. ‘When other countries see our show, they no longer want to take us over.’

In more serious moments, though, he will admit that he wouldn’t be doing the show if his mother was still alive. He would be too embarrassed. She had wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but his early career in politics met with her approval, too. Springer read political science at Tulane University in New Orleans before becoming a campaign aide to Robert F Kennedy. After the assassination of his boss in 1968, he joined a law firm, and in 1970 ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He was elected to the Cincinnati city council the following year. But then, in 1974, Cincinnati police raided a brothel and found a cheque he had signed.

Springer admitted he’d been well and truly sprung, and resigned. The voters rewarded his honesty by returning him to his seat the following year; and his triumph was complete when he became Cincinnati mayor in 1977-78. But realising that the sex scandal would always be dragged up if he tried to go any further in politics, he decided to try his hand at television instead.

I think he could have made a good career politician, possibly one in the Bill Clinton mould. Warm, reassuring, unflappable. Does he wish his political career had gone differently? ‘No. Every day I think maybe I could give all this up and go into politics again, but then I realise that politics is part of my life anyway. I spend most of my time in the States making political speeches, raising money, campaigning. So I have never left politics, in a way. Besides, once you make politics your career you become intellectually dishonest because you have to win the next election to put food on the table. You compromise. You couch things.’

And nowadays, I suggest, politicians can’t be ‘normal people’ anyway because their records have to be squeaky clean. Even as students they have to avoid sex and drugs and potential scandals. ‘Actually, I think we are probably over that. Maybe 20 years ago that was the case. Even with the [Monica] Lewinsky scandal, Clinton left office higher in the opinion polls than when he arrived. People may have told jokes about him at cocktail parties, but there was never a question that if he had been able to run again, he would have won.’

So Springer was a victim of bad timing? ‘Not exactly. Back in the Seventies when I came clean I found the public were totally understanding, I think because I was the one who broke the story. I figured I would be blackmailed forever on this so I may as well just hold my hands up and say I really f—– up and I shouldn’t have done it.’

Was it liberating to get it off his chest? ‘With hindsight possibly, but at the time I felt like a piece of crap. I make no excuses for it. But again, there was a record there that people could judge me on, as a councillor, I mean. I had balanced the books. They figured that I shouldn’t be judged on something that lasted an hour. It was flat-out wrong, sure. But there are worse things a guy can do than go with a prostitute.’

I ask if now that he has reached official retirement age he looks back on his life and feels fulfilled. ‘Yeah. ‘Course. I mean, what a life. I don’t need to make a living now, so I can do things because I want to, because it gives me a kick.’

Like this musical? ‘Exactly.’

Did he also agree to do it because he knew it would take him out of his comfort zone? ‘Way out! It wasn’t something I saw coming. I mean, I haven’t acted since college. My agent called me while I was in London last summer and said, “Do you fancy it, Jerry?” I said, “Sure, why not?”

‘Then he said, “You’re going to have to audition.” Audition? “Sing. They need to find out if you can hold a tune. Go along to the Cambridge Theatre at 4pm this afternoon.” So I showed up and there were six people sitting in folding chairs. They said, “Let’s hear it”. I thought it would be a train wreck. I was with Bob.’

Bob is his bodyguard in Britain, a burly, deadpan cockney who is sitting one table away from us now. I ask Bob what he thought of his boss’s singing voice. ‘Fantastic. He was like a nightingale.’ Pause. ‘A nightingale being shot at with an air rifle.’

‘But it will be fine,’ Springer continues. ‘They will coach me and I’ll be having a singing instructor. Sure, I’m going to be nervous. Why wouldn’t I be? There’s nowhere to hide. I’m already memorising the script so that I am word perfect by the first day of rehearsal.’

How are his moves? ‘Someone yesterday pointed out that I was the oldest person ever to play Billy Flynn. Jeez, you really don’t need to hear that. They have told me that I have to get in shape because
I’ll be singing while I’m dancing. Well, I’m a circle, is that a shape? [He’s not, actually. He’s pretty lean.] Luckily, drinking and smoking aren’t among my vices.’

What is among them? ‘Well, I do smoke the odd cigar. And I eat horribly and I don’t do exercise. A round of golf once in a while. I’m going to have to go on a treadmill. I’m going to treat it seriously.’ His biggest fear is going blank and when I tell him that performers can now have a concealed earpiece through which prompts can be heard, he leans forward excitedly. ‘They can do that?’ He turns to Bob. ‘Have you heard about that?’ Bob: ‘Course.’

Jerry: ‘Oh, I am so happy. So if they see me hesitate they will cue me?’ Bob: ‘Yeah, and it’ll be handy because they can shout “duck” when someone from the audience throws a bottle at you.’

Springer’s fellow cast members look rather glamorous, I note. ‘Boy, you’re telling me, it’s a very visual show. A period piece playing with the stereotypes of Chicago gangsters.’

Come on, he knows what I mean. Day after day rehearsing with beautiful young women. Will he be tempted? Will he flirt? ‘Hey, I’m 65. I just want to be still breathing at the end of this.’

I only ask because in 1998 it was rumoured that Micki, his wife of 35 years and the mother of his grown-up daughter, left him after he slept with a porn star the day before she appeared on his show to discuss her attempt to beat the world sex marathon record. He will neither confirm nor deny the story, although he does describe himself to me as still married. ‘When I’m not working, I like being at home with my family. I don’t go out much. But like I say, I’m 65. What do you expect? That’s why most people don’t have room-mates.’

Room-mates? What does he mean? Does he not have a room-mate at the moment? ‘I’m not, I haven’t, since I was in a fraternity… I mean, yeah, I’m married. But when you go home, if you’re not with your family, then who do you want to be with? No one. You want to be on your own.’

Part of the problem, he admits, is that he is too recognisable. People chant ‘Jer-ree, Jer-ree’, at him when they see him walking down the street, as they do in the television studio. Generally, he has a sunny disposition, he says, but if he is in a rare dark mood, he won’t go out because he doesn’t want to be horrible to members of the public. ‘I love being alone but that’s because I don’t have a normal life,’ he says in a low voice, leaning forward. ‘As we sit here I have already noticed someone point at me.’

And there is the need of a bodyguard. His show plays a dangerous game, stirring up emotions in people who find it difficult to control them. In 2002 a man killed his ex-wife after they both appeared on the show. More typically, though, people find it cathartic and shake hands afterwards, feeling relieved they have aired their grievances. As host, Springer is keen to stress that the show is supposed to be entertaining rather than uncomfortable.

That is why it is layered with knowing, self-mocking allusions. The titles of the episodes are intended to raise a smile: ‘Honey, I’m a Call Girl,’ or ‘Pregnant by a Transsexual’ or ‘Mom will you marry me?’ (that was about a divorced woman who was engaged to marry her ex husband’s son from a previous marriage, but you probably already guessed that). One of the most watched clips on YouTube is of two dwarfs having a punch-up on the show, while the studio audience holler their approval. It makes the circus at Rome look tame by comparison.

It all makes you wonder, though, how a man obsessed with serious politics from an early age could end up presenting such a frivolous show. When the camera pans around to see his reaction, he does seem detached, nodding sympathetically perhaps, but his mind elsewhere. He is defensive about accusations that he has not only dumbed down television but that his show is vulgar and exploitative. ‘What critics mean by that is that guests on the show are vulgar. Snobbery again.’

Is there anything that shocks him, anything at all? ‘No, but neither are you shocked by anything. You can’t be a grown-up in the modern world and be shocked. I mean, we have had a Holocaust, a presidential assassination and 9/11. You may be surprised, because it happens to someone you know, but that is different.

‘What fascinates us is human reaction to certain behaviour. You look to the person you think will be most surprised. In other words, if someone comes out on the show and tells his girlfriend, “I’m really a woman”, everyone will look at his girlfriend. You are not shocked that a guy could really be a woman. That stuff has been around for as long as there have been humans. I mean, read the Bible. What is new in our show that you can’t find in the Bible?’

Um, how about “I married my horse”? ‘OK, that one might not be in the Bible, but you take my point. We did a follow-up to that one. The horse had left him. The point is, it is human nature to gossip. ‘You could take an Oxford professor and say, “Did you know Mrs Jenkins down the road is having an affair?” and he would lean forward and say, “Really? Tell me more.”e_STnS’ He grins. ‘Look, I don’t know why I’m defending this because I don’t even watch the show. Why would I? It’s not aimed at 65?year-old men. Our main audience is students.’

What about the relentless swearing on the show? Does that make him uncomfortable? ‘Well, we’re different in America because we bleep it out.

‘But anyway, television did not invent swearing and I personally don’t have a foul mouth, unless maybe when I’m with my buddies, telling dirty jokes. The people I work with will never have heard me curse. And I never lose my temper.’

I turn to his bodyguard again. That true Bob? ‘I’ve never seen him.’

‘Maybe, I’m passive aggressive,’ Springer concedes.

Certainly he seems self-contained. When not in England, he divides his time between the television studios in Chicago and his second home in Sarasota, Florida. The thought of living in Hollywood does not appeal to him and he doesn’t have celebrities as friends.

Part of him may revel in his reputation as an outsider who pushes the boundaries of taste too far, but another part seems to cringe at the thought that this, and not his political life, is what he will be remembered for. In 2003, Stewart Lee, the British comedian who wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera, invited the presenter to the first night of his musical and, afterwards, asked him to come up on stage. When the applause died down Springer simply said: ‘I’m sorry’. It got a laugh.


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.