Like a patient in a dentist’s waiting room, a patient regretting the neglect of his gums, Jim Broadbent sits on the sofa and stares at his shoes. I have been warned by his publicist that he is ‘painfully shy but friendly when he warms up’, and that’s about right. On the rare occasions he makes eye contact, it is with a rictus smile, as if friendliness for him requires physical rather than mental effort, as if he has to remind his knobbly face that smiling is the way to signal warmth. It is the awkward manner of his speech that most clearly betrays his introversion, though. He stutters slightly and punctuates his sentences with a soft, nervy chuckle that makes his words melt away like butter on crumpets. They are desultory, these sentences, and full of old-fashioned turns of phrase. Many remain unfinished.

It does occur to me that he could be acting all this. He is a great actor, after all, an Oscar-winning actor indeed. He often plays sweet, gentle, lugubrious types, such as Bridget Jones’s father, or John Bayley, the academic who looked on in helpless anguish as his wife, Iris Murdoch, succumbed to Alzheimer’s, or Lord Longford – he may have been given a bald pate and prosthetic nose to play that role, but the sympathy for Myra Hindley seemed to be all his. People who know Broadbent privately say that this is what he is like away from the cameras. Yet in front of them he will as often play loud extroverts, such as the bombastic ringmaster in Moulin Rouge! (a role for which he won a Bafta) or the bumptious nightclub owner in Little Voice, or the corrupt police officer in Hot Fuzz. Some might call it versatility, but Broadbent has another theory as to why he is capable of such extremes, and we shall come to this.

Curiously, in his latest film, an adaptation of Blake Morrison’s best-selling memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father?, he somehow combines the two. The character he plays, Blake’s father, is a GP in the Yorkshire Dales. He is embarrassing, overbearing and boorish, but also capable of great tenderness and pathos. Already this is being talked of as an Oscar-winning performance. The scenes in which he lies in bed dying from cancer and tries to communicate with his angry son, played by Colin Firth, could not be more emotionally charged and affecting.

When I ask him what his relationship with his own father was like – Roy Broadbent was a furniture maker who died of cancer when Jim was 23 – he crunches slowly on a shortbread biscuit before answering. ‘M-m-my father was a Yorkshireman who moved to Lincolnshire in the war. He was like Blake’s father in some ways. Almost an exact contemporary. He would come down to see me in London and fix things around the house. He was always the black sheep of his family, a conscientious objector.’ (During the war the family had gone to live in a bohemian, anti-war commune in rural Lincolnshire. His mother, Dee, became a sculptor.)

Broadbent felt some sympathy with Blake’s father, then, even though he was an unsympathetic character. ‘I think some people felt I was too sympathetic to play Arthur. I disagree, obviously. I think I can be unpleasant.’

There is still the trace of Lincolnshire in his vowels, which is surprising given that he has lived in London for most of his adult life. He also dresses like a countryman, in anonymous greens and browns, as if trying to camouflage himself, deflect attention, fade into the background.

The death scenes in his new film, I note, really bring home the dribbling, incontinent ugliness of dying. ‘It helped that when we filmed those scenes it was with a small crew in a real house.’ He frowns. ‘Was it? Just trying to think if there was a studio involved But it was certainly a small set. Quite claustrophobic.’

Did those scenes require a sacrifice of vanity on his part? ‘Well that is always the first to go, vanity. Can’t hang on to vanity as an actor. It’s one of the paradoxes, really, that to be an actor you have to have a big enough ego to want people to look at you, but ultimately you can’t be vain. I reckon I did remember when my father died at home after a year-long illness when he was about the age I am now 58 I was touring around the North in my first job and was able to get home at weekends and was at home when he actually died I remember watching him and’

And? ‘And so I brought some of that to the role.’

Did he find it painful, reliving those moments with his dying father? He blinks. Tears are welling up in his eyes, tears that catch the light, eyes that still stare at shoes. ‘I found it upsetting to read the book, and the script, that was when it all came back to me. But not as much not so much when I was doing it. You just try and remember how it was.’

Did he have any unfinished business with his own father, things that needed to be said, as Blake does in the book? ‘I was quite young, 23, I think, so there was an awful lot I hadn’t worked out. Ten years later there would have been a lot I wanted to ask him talk about.’

I ask if his father had worried about him becoming an actor – it’s not the most secure profession in the world, after all. ‘No, he was encouraging. He had huge confidence. In fact, it had been him who had suggested I go to drama school in the first.’

Broadbent had attended Leighton Park, a Quaker school in Reading, before taking a place at art school. He left that to transfer to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. A tutor at his college described him as strange-looking and predicted that he wouldn’t find work until he was in his forties. Following his graduation in 1972, he worked as an assistant stage manager at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and while he was waiting for acting work to come, he joined the Ugly modelling agency (although he never landed a job because, as he puts it, ‘Perhaps I wasn’t ugly enough’). After that he co-founded the brilliant and eccentric National Theatre of Brent, a two-man troupe. Then came work with the (real) National Theatre and, finally, film stardom in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet.

Does it make him sad to think that his father never knew how successful his son went on to become? ‘I think he was quite the doting father. Unlike Blake’s father, mine would praise me constantly, unwarrantedly. He did say as he was dying that he regretted not knowing how it would end for us, what was going to happen to us all.’ His eyes well up with tears again and he blinks them away. ‘It was an unfinished narrative. He didn’t mind his own story ending But’

I ask whether tears come easily to him when he is acting. ‘Actually no. I’m always impressed when women can summon up real tears. I can never do that. I have to use that fake stuff.’

Away from acting, does he find it easy to cry? ‘I don’t know when I last cried but I do choke up easily. Usually documentaries about bravery get to me. I can be choked up on a cheesy documentary, not even a good one, one where my emotions are being deliberately manipulated.’

His mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1995. ‘Mmm, mmm, much later than my father. I was around for that, too. A few hours before and a few hours after. It was 18 months of deterioration. A year in a nursing home. She was older, so it wasn’t as heartbreaking as it might have been. Some people die of Alzheimer’s quite young.’

It was this experience that coloured his Oscar-winning performance in Iris. He relived his mother’s death for that; now he is reliving his father’s in his latest film: why does he suppose he is drawn to roles that evoke painful memories? ‘I’m not sure I suppose with Iris it was partly about wanting to draw public attention to this little-understood disease. The film was appreciated by the Alzheimer’s charities. When my mother died there was much less information about it. I remember when my mother got it we were searching for information and help and couldn’t find any really.’

Do his parents still cast a shadow on his life? ‘I had exactly twice as much time with my mother as my father, so it was spread out? so I didn’t have a feeling of being orphaned It is not like when both your parents go together and you are suddenly on your own. With Alzheimer’s, as well, the person becomes a stranger before they die: that separation happens earlier. The person you know goes quite early on in the course of the disease. You lose the shared memories and the conversations you normally have in a relationship.’

Some men find it almost liberating when their father, the moral arbiter of their formative years, dies. Was that the case with him? Did he, say, get an urge to appear in Hair fully naked? He gives the gentle chuckle. ‘No, he would have been up for all that. I’d never felt constrained by him. My father was “small l” liberal.’

Are they temperamentally similar, father and son? ‘Not really, personality wise I do think about him a lot, probably as you get older and get closer to the age it all becomes a bit more relevant than it was when I was 23. I sometimes catch his reflection in the mirror, especially when the hair goes. The driving mirror. The corner of the face. The glasses. A little bit of that. Some of his qualities I wish I had. Others I’m pleased I didn’t have.’

Silence again, followed by a chuckle. Qualities such as? ‘Wouldn’t know really. Quite contradictory. Someone once told me I was waif-like. Can’t see it myself. Perhaps when I was younger. I don’t think about myself too much. Not that interested. I think I’m quite boring.’

Surely when he was younger he must have been curious about himself? ‘A little bit, I would ask: What am I about? What am I going to be? But I’m not so bothered now. It’s set. No need to fret about it.’

Given his obvious shyness, for him to have chosen a profession where he would get on stage and draw attention to himself does seem a little perverse. ‘Yes, I don’t understand it. There is a split in my personality because sometimes I can be loud in person as well as on stage.’

He believes he may have taken on the personality of his twin sister, who died at birth. Her personality sits alongside his own, he reckons, giving him a split one. And this explains why he can be anxious one day and a risk-taker the next. It also explains how he can be an extrovert as an actor – veering between caricature and naturalism, between strength and vulnerability – and yet still be an introvert in his private life.

I wonder whether this split might also have helped him cope with rejection early on in his career. ‘I gave myself a 10-year plan. I thought that after drama school, if it didn’t seem to be going anywhere after 10 years, I would rethink it. It does make you insecure, acting. There were some really talented people with wit and style at drama school who couldn’t hack the insecurity from the word go. But if you stay with it for a few years you learn to handle the insecurity and the rejection. You can’t be too fragile. You have to be a bit tough about it

‘When people ask my advice and say, “My son or daughter is thinking about going into acting but can’t make up his or her mind”, I say, “If you have any doubts don’t do it.” You have to be completely driven and have no option. It is a form of madness, actually.’

For all his seriousness as an actor now – and the demand for him in Hollywood; he will be appearing in the latest Indiana Jones movie next – he started out as a comic actor. ‘I think what I was trying to do was spread the net wide. Different directors see me in different ways. Anyway, a lot of that stuff in theatre, the National Theatre of Brent stuff, mostly went unnoticed because not many people go to the theatre compared with television.’

I ask whether, when he was at drama school, he ever saw himself as the handsome lead in Hollywood films. ‘Every actor would think that at some stage. It’s part of the wanting to do the job. I wasn’t one of dozens of handsome young men after the one role for the handsome young man, though. I was never up for that. I was always part of an odder group of character actors. I wasn’t impatient.’

He never considered himself good-looking. ‘Not really, no probably quite a poor self-image actually, until I got used to myself Yeah,? wouldn’t have thought?#x0027;

He says that he doesn’t see the films he appears in more than he has to. ‘If I haven’t seen a film for a long time, though, and it’s a comedy, and I’m being funny, I do laugh at what I’m doing, as if it’s another person up there’

He has written his own screenplays, most notably the black comedy A Sense of History, directed by Mike Leigh. What about an autobiography? Is he planning one? ‘I’ve got my title for it, but I’ll never write it.’

And that title is? ‘My Grandmother was a Snowball.’

Er, right. Yep. Good title. ‘That was her maiden name.’

Has he kept a diary? ‘No, but er’ The wheezy laugh. ‘I get so bored. What I did I’m too self-conscious. I would always assume I wouldthat people would read it one day and I couldn’t bear that because I would think it was so badly written.’

So he does have a certain vanity, after all, I say. Intellectual vanity. He glances up from his shoes and gives a grin that is shy, lopsided, apologetic. ‘I’m a contradiction.’

‘I suppose I am very aware that I am not academic at all, that university was never an option. I suppose I’ve got a what’s the word thing.’

Complex? ‘Complex about not being intellectual.’

So how did he overcome that complex to play an intellectual in Iris? ‘I think I might be intelligent but not clever. I didn’t have the A-levels.’

He was expelled for drinking, he adds in his monotonal way. ‘But only after A-levels. I was told I had to leave immediately after sitting my A-levels, which wasn’t a great hardship. Except I didn’t get to do the leavers’ play.’

I’m sure that he has been asked back to his school as the conquering hero many times since. ‘No, I haven’t actually. I must be down on the list: Expelled.’

On the wall of shame, I suggest, with a skull and crossbones by his name. The foggy chuckle again. I ask what the Quaker element of his school meant to him.

‘It was semi-progressive. No corporal punishment or cadet corps, because it was pacifist. Very little uniform. There was a blazer if you wanted one. There was no dogma or hierarchy. ?And we had Quaker meetings in the school hall where you sat in silence.’

It occurs to me that the silences he drifts into to this day may have taken root at school and that he carries them around with him like a comfort blanket. Could that be it? ‘I don’t mind silence And they were very nice people, the Quakers. If I was ever to go back to religion I would likely go to the Quakers first. I never did have it, really, though. I was at that school because my parents were pacifists, not Quakers.’

So what does he think happens to you when you die?

‘Absolutely nothing. I’m with Arthur Morrison on that one.’

Does the prospect of his own inevitable death frighten him? ‘I don’t think it does. I don’t fret about it. I think it was partly to do with seeing my father go. It didn’t frighten him. Upset him a bit but not I think if you are an atheist, what’s there to be frightened of? But I don’t want to die yet.’

What about his own death-bed scene (many years from now, I hope)? Will he want his two stepsons there? ‘Yes, I think so. I am as a father to them. Twenty-five years now.’

In 1983 he met Anastasia Lewis, a theatre designer and textile artist who was mother to two sons. The couple married five years later. Did he ever wonder what it would be like having his own biological children? ‘My wife didn’t want to go down that route and for various reasons that was fine by me. I wasn’t going to say, all right, I’m off, I’ll find someone else. It was obviously never of driving importance to me because on some level I would seek out someone who would provide that but I’m terribly close to my stepsons and their young ones.’

Another legacy of his having to sit in silence at school may be his patience on set. With his mild manner, the opposite of temperamental, he has a reputation for being easy to work with. The tedium of film sets, meanwhile, the sitting around for hours waiting for your next scene, never bothers him. He retreats into himself. He whittles gargoyles from wood; his hobby.

He likes working with directors such as Mike Leigh and Woody Allen (he starred in Bullets over Broadway) who don’t go in for much shouting. ‘Good directors like actors and enjoy what actors bring in terms of improvisation,’ he says. ‘Woody and Mike are different in that with Mike you do all the improvisation in the rehearsal before the script is finalised, whereas with Woody he asks you to improvise away from the finished script. Make it sound natural and real. But there are more similarities than not between them.’

Both directors are known for their melancholy; is that something he can identify with? ‘Melancholic is as far as it goes. I don’t get depressed. Enjoyable melancholy. I don’t know what real depression is.’

In terms of his career, Broadbent doesn’t have much to be depressed about. He is one of Britain’s most recognisable actors and has won more awards and critical acclaim than seems decent. He was offered an OBE a few years ago but turned it down. Such is his diffidence. (Although that was also partly on the grounds that he didn’t think the militarism of the British Empire was something that should be celebrated – his father’s pacifism coming out.)

Given all these achievements, all these laurels to rest on, what motivates him to keep going? ‘I live in London but I’ve had a cottage in Lincolnshire for 17 years and we’ve just got a slightly bigger place there. So it would be nice to get that right. And I can imagine taking a sabbatical for a year and then just extending it.

‘I don’t like to do work that doesn’t appeal to me. I’m often cast as people older than myself so I’m sure there will always be work. But in not wanting to repeat myself I find there are more and more jobs I don’t want to do.’

He takes another bite of his shortbread biscuit and crunches on it slowly. ‘And that’s about it really.’


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.