In her latest television incarnation Joanna Lumley brilliantly portrays a lonely gentlewoman with nothing to do all day but stare at herself in the dressing-table mirror. Nigel Farndale asks her what she sees


AFTER half an hour of desultory conversation, Joanna Lumley lowers her shoulders a notch, takes a thoughtful drag on her Rothmans and says, ‘Maybe one was less adorable than one should have been when you arrived.’ What! Hang on. I thought I’d been getting the full Lumley treatment: the red carpet, gold-star-plus service. I feel so cheated.

She laughs the Lumley laugh: short, low and breathy. ‘We all act all the time and sometimes we could do it better, Nigel, that’s all. I could have done it better when you arrived.’ (Before I arrived, she goes on to explain, she had been ‘rather thrown’ by having her picture taken by our photographer in a public bar. When she saw there were other people drinking in there she thought ‘rats’, a very Lumley word to think.)

Her comments, made across a restaurant table overlooking a wind-raked Hyde Park, are intriguing on two counts. First, she thinks ‘one should’ be adorable, at all times. It is expected of her, as it might be expected of royalty or labrador puppies. Second, if she is acting ‘all the time’ this implies she is being manipulative most of the time. ‘No, no,’ she corrects softly. ‘Though I am prone to exaggerated courtesy, huh huh, a weakness of mine.’

In 1986 she married Stephen Barlow, a conductor and pianist eight years her junior: does she ever catch herself acting with him? ‘He sees through me as though I were a very shallow puddle. I can’t fool him at all.’

Leaving aside for the moment what I can now plainly see was a shameful lack of adorability on Joanna Lumley’s part when I arrived, my first impressions of her were as follows: yes, she looks younger than her 55 years; yes, her cheekbones are like elbows; yes, when she smiles she displays an alarming number of teeth and looks like a friendly barracuda. And yes – of course, yes – that mellow, silken voice with its immaculately rounded Pony Club vowels does leave you with a tingling sensation at the nape of your neck.

But the most striking thing about Joanna Lumley OBE is her deportment: she glides in a straight-spined, square-shouldered way, making herself seem taller than she is (which at 5ft 8in is still pretty tall). Asked to describe herself she shrugs and says, ‘Tall and good-natured.’ Her height contributes that much to her sense of self-identity? ‘Yes. And being tall affects the way other people look at you. They think: aloof, snooty, commanding – all things that aren’t necessarily there at all. That is what “tall woman” means.’

She taps a matchbox against the tablecloth. ‘I have an extra vertebrae, that is why I am tall. It’s probably why I have a bad back, too. But, really, I’m titchy compared to models today.’ Lumley became a model after leaving St Mary’s, an Anglo-Catholic convent in Hastings, with one A-level. (She was, she says, ‘bumptious’ as a schoolgirl, as well as spotty: ‘If you had seen me in my teens, Nigel, you would have bolted for the door without picking up your coat.’)

Having failed to win a place at the Rada she enrolled at the Lucie Clayton Modelling Agency and Training School in London. ‘They trained me how to get out of an E-type Jag without showing my knickers,’ she recalls. ‘That is all young blonde women were supposed to do at the time, get out of E-type jags with their knees together while pipe-smoking men held the door open for them, huh huh.’

She soon became one of the top ten most-booked models in London – and, with her hot pants, mini-skirts and flares, became a symbol of the Swinging Sixties, too. Did her oneness with the spirit of that age extend to drug-taking? ‘I did smoke a bit of dope, but not much, of any of it, because I hadn’t got the money. When I read about young people today getting off their heads every night of the week, I wonder how they afford it. It brings out the Tunbridge Wells woman in me – you know, old tights and a moustache.’ (Although she was born in Kashmir – her father was a major in the 2nd 6th Gurkha Rifles – Joanna Lumley moved to England with her family at the age of eight, and lived in a village not far from Tunbridge Wells.)

She did, though, embrace the counter-culture to the extent that, in 1967, she became a single mother (declining to name the father) and, three years later, after a five-day courtship, agreed to marry the comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd, of Are You Being Served and ‘Allo ‘Allo! The marriage, which marked a splendidly kooky period in Lumley’s life, was characterised by her ‘visions’ and his out-of-body experiences. It lasted four months, after which they both had nervous breakdowns.

Lumley’s came during a long run of a Brian Rix farce. She became so depressed she walked out on the show and lay sobbing on her bedroom floor. ‘Nervous breakdown? Didn’t really know what it was at the time. With hindsight I think it was a bad case of stage fright. Terribly common.’

She says this neutrally, talking in clipped sentences. ‘Came from boredom. The repetition. You go mad. I’d been in that play for ten months, eight shows a week. I’ve been in many plays since and it has been fine but I’ve made sure I’ve never done long runs again. I like new things. Which is why I like filming. I only started in acting because I was interested in film. I like the lie.’ She shakes her matches. ‘The fibs the camera tells.’

Her first big film role came in 1971 in a soft porn movie, Games That Lovers Play (she bitterly regrets her early screen nudity now, dismissing it as prurient and exploitative). The film was made around the same time that she had a two-month fling with Rod Stewart (she left him after he failed to turn up on a date, having, as he put it, ‘got caught up with some tart’).

Her first big role in television came in 1973, on Coronation Street. She played Ken Barlow’s girlfriend. But it wasn’t until she played the karate-chopping Purdey in The New Avengers three years later that she became a household name. Fashion-conscious women everywhere would turn up at their hairdressers clutching a picture of Lumley’s pageboy haircut and ask for ‘a Purdey.’

A starring role in the sci-fi series Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982) followed, as well as odd cameos in films such as Shirley Valentine (1989), but it wasn’t until 1993 that Joanna Lumley again found superstardom, this time as Patsy Stone, the beehive-wearing, chain-smoking, self-centred alcoholic she played in Absolutely Fabulous.

The character – right up there with Captain Mainwaring and Basil Fawlty in the pantheon of great British comedy archetypes – was invented after Ruby Wax pretended to break into Joanna Lumley’s home to do a ‘surprise’ interview. Wax found the seemingly demure and fragrant actress surrounded by – Lumley’s idea this – empty whisky bottles and dirty laundry and on the point of a nervous breakdown.

Wax, who was to become the script editor on Absolutely Fabulous, suggested Lumley should get in touch with Jennifer Saunders, who was to be the writer, and sitcom history was made.

Lumley’s work since Absolutely Fabulous has been mixed. She acquitted herself well enough in Cold Comfort Farm (1995) and A Rather English Marriage (1998) but Dr Willoughby (1999), a comedy series in which she was the star, proved to be a turkey. Critics panned it as ‘unfunny, badly written and hammily overacted.’

Now, however, Joanna Lumley seems to have found the role she was born to play, that of Madison Blakelock. Up in Town, a six-part series of ten-minute dramas to be shown on BBC2 in the spring, has been written especially for her by Hugo Blick, who wrote Marion and Geoff. Madison, who lives in genteel poverty in a one-room flat in a converted mansion, has nothing to do all day except sit at her dressing-table doing her make-up, staring into the mirror (the viewpoint of the audience), waiting for her rich husband to leave his mistress and come back to her.

Two things struck me when watching a preview. First, it is very good indeed, the stuff of Bafta awards, with a tragi-comic ‘talking head’ style script worthy of Alan Bennett. Second, the dignified and whimsical character Lumley plays seems to be eerily similar to her own. All makes sense when Lumley explains the writing process: ‘We had weekly meetings to invent the character because that is how Hugo works. He sits there with his Mekon-sized brain and talks to you and the character changes shape. The script isn’t even like a script – I wish I’d brought a page along to show you – there is just one thin strip of dialogue. Occasionally Hugo would say, “I would like this sentence to be exactly as written.” The rest is assimilated and delivered. A fantastically freeing way of working.’

Madison copes, she soldiers on, she doesn’t do things which might appear unseemly or immodest. That is what Joanna Lumley is like, is it not? ‘Yes, she has no self-pity. But in a strange way there has been arrested development with Maddie.’ Was Lumley drawing upon her own rituals for applying make-up when she played this character?

‘Maddie loved the full laborious make-up process, what women’s magazines call one’s “beauty regime”. I’m not like that at all. My regime is to saw off the bits of nail I’ve broken in the garden.’ Oh come now. Modesty. ‘Well, I do try to look nice for things where people expect me to look nice. For you, Nigel, I cut my hair this morning. I did it with a mirror and scissors behind my head. And I dye my own hair.’ She leans forward and lowers her voice. ‘I met a woman the other day at a rather grand lunch and she said something spiteful about another woman: “She looks like the sort of woman who washes her own hair.” Isn’t that awful? I’ve never heard that before! Huh huh. Are you sure you don’t mind me smoking? I don’t smoke very many.’

She strikes a match. ‘This is only my second today.’ Does Joanna Lumley wear make-up as a form of mask, a way of stepping into character whenever she goes out in public? ‘No, no. I don’t think about it at all. I don’t think I look very different without make-up. I realised long ago that if my life was so hedged about that I didn’t dare go out without make-up, it would be miserable. What’s the worst that can happen? A photographer from a magazine might catch me out buying my groceries, big deal.’

Can she identify a moment of invention when Joanna Lumley became ‘Joanna Lumley’ the answer to quiz questions, the actress who has Oxbridge Junior Common Rooms named after her, the gay icon who inspired a float of transvestite lookalikes at a Sydney carnival? ‘l think if you have an acting strain in you, if you enjoy being other people, then inventing yourself comes naturally.’

What about her voice? After she appeared on In the Psychiatrist’s Chair in 1994 Lumley asked Dr Anthony Clare if he would see her sister Aelene (older by two years) for a private consultation. Aelene was furious and, in a newspaper interview, she claimed this was the latest in a series of humiliating digs Joanna had had at her over the years. She even accused Joanna of talking to her family in a stage voice, as though they were fans. Does Lumley think her voice evolved? ‘You don’t hear yourself.’ But if her 15-year-old self heard her now would she think her voice was affected? ‘I’m sure it must have been higher. Because the 15-year-old didn’t smoke. Smoking fattened my voice. A lot of voice actors smoke and very few sopranos do.’ Does that apply to musicians too? What about her husband? ‘Yes, he smokes, huh huh. We live in a nice yellowing house.’

Joanna Lumley seems a controlled person, seems to have what a psychiatrist would call a well-defended personality. ‘Only in public. I unburden myself to my friends. I have very understanding friends. I’ve never talked to a psychiatrist, other than Professor Anthony Clare. I used to confide in journalists, really open my heart to them. But I learnt not to.’ Damn. ‘Huh huh.’

She must have very trustworthy friends. Her son Jamie was born when she was 21 – she didn’t realise she was pregnant for six months, having been told by doctors she was infertile – and she and her friends managed to keep the secret of who the father was for 30 years. Press speculation was fevered, with Lord Lichfield being odds on favourite at one point.

In her 1989 memoirs Stare Back and Smile, Lumley described the secret as becoming ‘like one of Aesop’s fables – with an impenetrable moral.’ She eventually revealed – in a newspaper announcement at the time of her son’s engagement in 1997 – that the father was a photographer, Michael Claydon.

Was it a strain keeping schtum? ‘Well this is so long ago, Jamie is 34 now. It was a different world then. My small boy growing up was no one else’s business. I really thought and I still think now that my family is nothing to do with my job as an actress. I really don’t feel the need to herd my family in and have them speculated upon and photographed and named and paraded, I don’t think that’s right. I really don’t think that is right. The only reason anyone is interested in me is I appear on television. It’s not because I’m doing a good job – you are not interviewing a nurse here.’

Modesty again. Much of Lumley’s time is devoted to her charity work – she is a patron, trustee or director of 44 charities – that and Compassion in World Farming, the pressure group against factory farming. She first took on a high-profile campaigning role for this cause in 1994 when she broke down in tears while launching a video about live animal transport.

Last year she let it be known that she was ‘furious’ with Tony Blair when he failed to reply to her letter calling for vaccination against foot-and-mouth in livestock. Is there an element of her making amends for her lightweight day job by embracing so publicly this heavyweight cause? ‘Acting is a bit too fey, you mean? I see. Mm. Possibly. I did worry about that. As an actress you are often seen as a lightweight. Journalists use this phrase luvvie to describe people who simper about comparing costumes, kissing each other and carping about lack of money.’

But actors do do that. ‘True, but it’s exaggerated to the point where people are almost affronted if actors have any interest other than acting. How could Joanna Lumley be interested in farming? Doesn’t she live in London?’ AN Wilson once wrote: ‘Joanna Lumley’s air of complete seriousness, her self-righteousness in the name of a cause, makes me giggle.’

Does she worry that people might think she is self-righteous? ‘People have said that, yes. Like most people in my profession we are approached because of our links with television. People might think you are doing it for publicity but I’ve become used to that because I started doing it when I was 19, for children’s charities, and I knew that for the rest of my life that accusation would follow me. But I just think, so what? Let it go.’

When she goes on to talk of the ‘burden of scrutiny’, I point out that at least she is used to it, having lived with it since she was 19. Being married to someone who is constantly scrutinised must be altogether harder. Stephen Barlow once said how depressed he felt when a tabloid asked to interview him about Glyndebourne only to find the article was about his being fed up with everyone thinking of him as Mr Lumley. ‘I have to say, um…’ Long pause. ‘I’ve never known him identified as Mr Lumley. I don’t think anyone has ever called him Mr Lumley. But what does happen is the other way round. Always when we are going somewhere I book us in as Mr and Mrs Barlow, which is our name, and people go into a back flip and feel I’ve cheated them in some way, that I ought to have signed in as Miss Lumley.’

Has Mrs Barlow become an expert on classical music since marrying Mr Barlow? ‘I’ve always loved it. Expert, absolutely not. I don’t play. At the moment Stephen is playing a lot of harpsichord and organ and piano, but when he is studying an opera the house has to be silent. You are allowed talking, Radio 4, but not music because that would interfere with the score he is running through in his head.’ And is she easily moved by music? She takes a sip of coffee and stares wanly out of the window. ‘I cannot get through The Marriage of Figaro, the part where the countess sings, “Where is my happy life?”, without weeping.’ She turns back to me and smiles. ‘I always cry when I watch ET, too.’

Though she has a terror of going mad and thinks about death in a calm, almost abstract way, every day, she is content, she says. Marriage especially has made her happier and more confident than she ever imagined she would be. She sleeps well – and always tries to have a 20-minute nap after lunch – but she has a recurring anxiety dream that she is about to go on stage and she doesn’t know what play it is she is performing in. ‘And no one will tell me, and I get locked out of my dressing-room, and there is no possible way of finding out who I am supposed to be playing. It’s about a fear of letting people down, I guess. Awful anxiety. Most of us are afraid of being found out. That we’re not really up to it. That some awful, godlike voice will pick us out.’

Given her early experience of stage fright, acting does seem to have been a rather masochistic choice of profession for her. Did she consider any other careers? ‘I’ve always thought how interesting it would be to be a teacher. To influence lives. That Jesuitical thing. Everything I’ve learnt I learnt before I was 12. Everything. I’ve learnt nothing since. Nothing that’s stuck anyway.’

Is that why she was so good at the Common Entrance Examination (she along with a number of other celebrities was asked by a newspaper to take the Common Entrance in 1984 – only the historian AJP Taylor came out with higher marks)? ‘Yes, huh huh. Because it was only for 13-year-olds.’ More modesty: Joanna Lumley has been a Booker Prize judge, she wrote a column for The Times in the 1980s and she has a photographic memory. ‘My memory is much worse now. I used to have a photographic one, yes. It was horrific.’ Why horrific? ‘Because one couldn’t forget stuff. It was like imprinting it on Plasticene.’

She mimes an imprint on the palm of her hand. ‘So I almost didn’t have to take things in because I knew it would be imprinted and I could look at it later. Isn’t that odd? I could read it.’ She stubs her cigarette out. ‘A question would come up about, say, the population of Abyssinia and I would think, ah yes, and flick to the page in my head. It would stick for about five days, as long as I needed it before a test. Not forever.’ While her modesty and droll self-mockery are sympathetic traits, there is something remote and – pace her character Maddie – almost arrested about Joanna Lumley.

She has a very low blood pressure, she says, and is ‘placatory and nice’ because she hates competing and fears confrontation – but she also says that she is afraid of losing her temper because she would be ‘so hugely unpleasant’ and say things she regretted.

Evelyn Waugh’s phrase about ‘creamy English charm playing tigers’ comes to mind when she says this. But it is also, I think, a matter of her hiding behind make-up, smoke and mirrors. ‘When I’m with someone I am trying to get on with I catch myself mirroring their movements,’ she says as we are about to leave. ‘I lean forward when they lean forward, fold my arms when they fold theirs. Human empathy. If I was talking to you like this,’ she turns her shoulder to me, three-quarter profile, ‘you would know there was something wrong. But I hope you’ve noticed, Nigel, I’ve been sitting face on.’

Her car is waiting outside. Hugging her coat to her, sheltered by a tall doorman with an umbrella, she looks smaller and more fragile than she did when I arrived. As we live about a mile away from each other in south London, she offers me a lift home. When we reach Vauxhall the roads narrow, cordoned off with bollards. ‘This makes me so angry,’ she says, tapping the window. ‘Heart attacks are caused by narrowing of the arteries and that is what is happening here. They keep narrowing the roads, narrower and narrower, and one day this whole area will just stop moving. Dead. It fills me with so much rage I fear that one day I will have a heart attack myself just thinking about it. If I die suddenly in a car you, Nigel, will be the only one who knows the real cause.’

We pull up outside her ‘nice yellowing house’ – which turns out to be a rather grand white stucco villa in a square – she says goodbye, the driver opens her door and, knees together, she gets out of the car.


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.