Everyone seems to have a John Hurt story. A friend of mine who works in the film industry once had to assist him as he made his way unsteadily from a hotel bar to a waiting taxi. A husband and wife I know bumped into him at what might be described as a ‘bohemian’ party in London. Another friend, an artist, invited a few people back to his flat after a night out, only to find that one of them was John Hurt. My friend left the room briefly and, upon his return, found the actor had taken off his clothes. He wanted to be painted in the nude.

But those days are behind him now, apparently; that behaviour a distant memory. Certainly the man I meet in a hotel a short walk from the place he shares with his fourth wife, on the Tottenham Court Road, seems calm and dignified; a little wistful if anything. ‘Walked here,’ he says in his hypnotically low and croaky voice, clipping his sentences. ‘Love walking around London. Rarely get recognised.’

And this despite his melancholic, downturned eyes being pretty recognisable. Small and narrow they are, like raisins set in a craggy rock face. Today he is wearing glasses, which disguise them a bit; and the grey goatee, with what looks like a nicotine stain on its moustache, is a newish addition. At 68 his 5ft 9in frame is wiry and he looks healthy; healthier than he used to. ‘Not short of energy. Reasonably fit. Don’t do anything other than walk. Walk a lot.’

And the drinking? ‘Oh, my drinking days are over.’

When did he last have one? ‘Three, three and half, four years ago, perhaps.’

That was when he got married, near enough. Does he miss it? ‘Not at all, not at all.’ Because it has bad associations? ‘It has good associations for the most part. It’s just times change. You change. When it no longer seemed to help, creatively, I mean, as it unquestionably had helped at one stage, it seemed time to give it up. Besides, attitudes to drinking have changed. Would Churchill have been able to get away with his drinking if he had been a politician today? Yet it really helped him. He was able to make good decisions while drinking. Huge decisions. The crowd I used to drink with, people like [Peter] O’Toole, used it as a fuel for their creativity. We used to go to Muriel’s, near St Martins. Like-minded people congregated there. Francis [Bacon]. Lucian [Freud]. It was a café society really. Muriel would say, “Hello c—y.” A term of affection.’

It’s true, it’s true. The café society part. Hurt belonged to a circle of wild-living and hard-drinking but also highly creative artists and actors. As well as O’Toole there was Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. But Hurt seemed to keep it up, or at least stay alive, for longer than most. He wasn’t particularly pleasant when he was drinking, mind. ‘There were times when he was a boring drunk and prickly, contentious,’ his friend Don Boyd has said. And just before he stopped drinking he was ejected from Spearmint Rhino for ‘boorish behaviour’, which, considering that’s a lap-dancing club, must have been very boorish indeed. He now says he could not have carried on drinking as he did because it would have killed him.

Has the not-drinking left a vacuum in his life? ‘Not really, no. No, I didn’t find any… any difficulty.’

Did he like himself when he was drinking? Long pause. ‘Oh God. This is all going to be about drink, isn’t it?’

He’d rather not talk about that aspect of his past? ‘Not really. I get a bit tired of it. Because it takes up so much space and it’s not important enough for that. My life has changed as my circumstances have changed. So to talk about my drinking now is of no interest to me.’

Which is fair enough. And besides, my favourite John Hurt story is not one of drunken excess but of mistaken identity. The DJ Andy Kershaw told me it. As a young man in 1985, Kershaw was asked to present Live Aid simply because, he said, the organisers knew a live broadcast on that scale would be one cock-up after another, but that with Kershaw’s air of amateurishness and naivety they might just get away with it. At one juncture his producer said into his earpiece that he had to go into the next room to interview John Hurt. ‘John who?’ Kershaw whispered. ‘You know,’ the producer whispered back, ‘The Elephant Man.’ Kershaw duly began his interview: ‘So, tell me about your work with elephants.’ Hurt, being a kind man as well as an old pro, said: ‘Well, when I was working on the film…’ and seamlessly launched into an anecdote.

In Kershaw’s defence, John Hurt didn’t exactly look like John Hurt in that film – just as he didn’t look like John Hurt when he played Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, or the heroin addict in Midnight Express, or the unwitting host for the alien in Alien, or the petulant Caligula in I, Claudius. He is, in other words, a great actor. An actor, moreover, who is always in demand, specialising in eccentrics with sinister charm, in victims, in misfits and lunatics. In the next few months we will see him in the new Indiana Jones movie (he was the only actor who refused to sign up to it without seeing a script) as well as the new Hellboy and, oh, various others, three or four, as he might vaguely say. Cameos mostly.

And that’s the trouble. He is also a promiscuous actor, having been in more than 100 films. This means that for every soaring eagle there is a flightless turkey; for every Alien, a Spaceballs. He says so himself: ‘I’ve done some stinkers in the cinema. You can’t regret it; there are always reasons for doing something, even if it’s just the location.’

Perhaps that will be his excuse for The Oxford Murders, which opens this month. Oxford is a lovely location, after all. The film is about two men – a professor of logic (Hurt) and a student (Elijah Wood, he of Lord of the Rings fame) – who meet for the first time at the moment a body is discovered. A series of murders follows, none of which is, technically, a murder. ‘It’s a murder story without a murder,’ Hurt says. ‘They are intellectual murders that happen in front of your eyes.’ The film amounts to a somewhat clunky bluffer’s guide to Wittgenstein: specifically, the philosopher’s idea that truth lies only in mathematical equations. The mathematics side appealed to Hurt. His father was a mathematician. Got a double first. Became an Anglican vicar.

‘I drove him mad when he was trying to teach me maths,’ Hurt recalls, dragging his fingers through hair so thick it is a global affront to balding men. ‘He was the sort of person who would do an equation for fun. But I couldn’t summon the energy for things I wasn’t interested in. The mind just wandered. Anyway, parents are the worst teachers, if they are good at it and you’re not. My father thought I was the densest offspring he could have produced.’

Hurt’s older brother Michael went to Cambridge. We shall come to him. Hurt, meanwhile, went to an art college in Grimsby and, after that, to St Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, where one of the models he painted was Quentin Crisp. He dropped out after a couple of years to go to Rada. That was in 1960. He burnt all his canvases. ‘It was one of those Faustian deals you make with yourself at that age. Shouldn’t have done, really. Didn’t even take photographs of it. But it doesn’t matter. A man is his memory. I’m with Buñuel on that.’

John Hurt seems to have lived an unsettled life, and that was part of the problem in terms of keeping paintings. As well as being on location much of the time, he has lived in Ireland, Kenya (where his ex-wife still lives, with most of his possessions, including his awards) and he has a second home in Ibiza. He has said that it is a good job he travels light: ‘I have to. I’ve given it all away three times. Three ex-wives. I tend not to keep things now. Not a collector of memorabilia.’

Still, he has recently taken up painting again. It seems to have helped fill the bottle-shaped hole in his life. He doesn’t show them though. ‘Quite private. Haven’t got enough, quite honestly. Enough finished, I mean. For an exhibition. I suppose I could exhibit anonymously like Bruce Bernard?… In the end the reason I gave up painting was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to paint. I hugely admired Munch, but Munch knew exactly what he wanted to paint.’

Was it pride? Fear of being criticised? ‘Fear of not being good enough.’ Did that fear ever filter into his acting career? ‘Difficult areas these. Need a psychiatrist to work them out. Don’t know quite. How my film career happened, I don’t know. It was unplanned. I’d been in films and TV throughout the Sixties and early Seventies but it was really The Naked Civil Servant in 1975 that put me on the radar. It was so autre, as Quentin would say. Everyone told me not to do it. It will wreck your career. You’re going too far. You will be typecast as a homosexual after this. At the time it was considered so outrageous. The mailbag I got after making that?… The people?…’

Homophobic insults? ‘No. Gratitude. It changed people’s lives. It was fascinating for me to find out how all these men had been living with this secrecy.’

At the moment he is planning a sequel. In negotiation. Can’t really talk about it. ‘It will be a bookend but with a different aspect. The whole period in New York. Instead of dealing with the abuse, Quentin is dealing with sycophancy and fame. On a personal level I do have admiration for him. He is a remarkable man. He had his weaknesses like anyone, but he chose a route that was as difficult as it is possible to chose. He was both oblique and objective about my performance. He said,’ – he adopts a camp and wispy voice – ‘Mr Hurt is my representative here on earth.’

He is intrigued by the extent to which attitudes have changed. ‘Society is constantly recalibrating, redefining what it considers to be moral and immoral. Look at homophobia. Attitudes have changed 180 degrees. Family life has totally changed as a concept. Divorce is a commonplace. You almost wonder when you get married how long it will be before the divorce.’ Well, he might. ‘Oh no, not me. Not any more. I’m wonderfully married. Enjoying it.’ He flicks imaginary dust from his trouser leg.

His wife is Anwen Rees-Meyers, some 25 years his junior. She is a former actress and classical pianist who now directs advertisements. They have no plans to have children, not least because he already has two grown-up sons from a previous marriage. I ask what is he like to live with. Does he help with the housework? The cooking? ‘I’ve always done that. Think I’m probably easier to live with now than I was before. I don’t know. Maybe I’m in denial.’

What did his father make of his divorces? ‘He wouldn’t marry anyone who had had a divorce. I shared his religious views until I was about 16, then I started questioning. I thought, how can this part be right if that is wrong? Where does religion come from? It seemed clear to me that religion came from man’s impatience, his absolute need to answer the mysteries immediately. Can’t sit back and say, “I don’t understand that.” Instead you have to have voices coming through from the heavens and the word becoming God and so on. With Muslims it is Allah speaking through the Prophet.

“That’s why religion causes so much war. Religious people know deep down that that is the most vulnerable area of their lives and when others question it they are liable to hit out and feel insulted. You know it is absolutely without proof yet people still commit themselves totally to this belief. They cannot refute it because it is so central to their lives.’

For the first time in the interview, Hurt has dropped his calm demeanour and become animated. He clasps his hands. He sits forward. This, clearly, is a subject that vexes him, it being an uncomfortable reminder of his distant relationship with his father.

Yet if religion cast a long shadow over his life, it cast a much longer one over his brother’s. ‘He converted to Catholicism to become a monk at Downside. Then he jumped over the wall and married a nun and that was a disaster that ended in annulment. Then he met a 19-year-old girl, had three children, the youngest of whom is now 26, then that marriage was annulled too and he went back to the Benedictine monkhood. Fascinating character.’

I’ll say. Especially in terms of his utter rejection of his father’s Protestantism. ‘Well quite.’ And if his brother has had doubts about a life of celibacy once?… ‘Yes, I’ve had conversations with him about this. I know there are doubts there, but somehow he keeps them out. This was when we were younger – I liked to stir things up a bit.’

One of Hurt’s best performances in recent years was as the philandering politician Alan Clark. Like Clark, he has been targeted by the press over drink and marital split-ups, once, memorably, with the headline, ‘Elephant Man packs trunk’. Clark supposedly had a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. Has Hurt considered the possibility that he might have one, too? ‘Quick blessing at the end, you mean? If it did happen I would know it was my weakness rather than a strength. I hope I shall have the courage to say, “Vroom! Here we go! Let’s become different molecules!” I saw the doubt in my father’s eyes. He was 95. I was with him almost when he died.’

That was in 1999. He thinks his father probably suffered from acute mood swings, which were glossed over within the family. He also thinks he may have inherited them. ‘Ups and downs’, he calls them. One of the worst downs came in 1983, on the day he saw Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, his girlfriend of 16 years, killed in a riding accident in Oxfordshire. His horse bolted. She went after it but lost her stirrup and was thrown, landing on her head on the road.

His mood swings were worse in those days. ‘Drink doesn’t make you feel better,’ he has said of that period in his life. ‘It just exacerbates the mood you are in.’ His wild behaviour may have looked like fun on the outside, he added, but actually it was a sign of a distressed person looking for something he couldn’t find. Eventually he did find it, it seems: in the world of acting, of pretending to be someone else. ‘Reality is dull. I’m complete when I’m working. It isn’t work.’

Some actors, of course, become actors because they never felt loved for themselves as children. With this in mind, I ask if his urge to perform grew out of watching his father give sermons every Sunday. ‘I suppose he did hold a congregation the way an actor holds an audience. A similar contract was entered into.’

Though he has spent much of his adult life in front of a camera, he can still feel a self-consciousness about it. ‘It varies. Ebbs and flows, like confidence. That spark is not always there. You have to find a way round that if inspiration is not with you. Acting is an imaginative exercise. It would be odd if you didn’t try to identify with the roles you play, but I think I can differentiate between where my imagination is leading me and where I actually am. I see myself as an interpretative actor rather than a creative one. And I quite like to be directed. There are great talents out there. Spielberg, of course. But Indiana Jones is a tried and tested franchise. Lot of build-up. Let’s hope the public like it. It will be a guarantee for the first weekend. Whether it has legs will remain to be seen. But there is also the likes of Guillermo del Toro. A great talent. As you will see with Hellboy II.’

Does he intimidate younger directors? ‘I hope not. I try not to intimidate. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could be intimidated by me. I wasn’t like Larry. When I played the Fool to his Lear, the scene on the heath, I said, “Watch out here, it’s slippy,’ and he hissed: “Is it.” And I said, “All right, slip over then and break your flipping neck, dear.” ‘

It is an endearing anecdote; perhaps it’s the one he told Andy Kershaw at Live Aid all those years ago. It reminds you of his longevity and his range. It also reminds you that John Hurt is one of the least acquisitive actors in the industry. He probably preferred being a Fool to a Lear. Less obvious. More quirky. He doesn’t seem overtly ambitious in that way. He covets few roles, chases few scripts, declines to build up myths about himself. Just waited for things to come to him, as with his answers to the eternal questions.

Unexpectedly, for an actor, he even seems to have lacked vanity. For many years, I have read, he refused to have a mirror in the house. Perhaps it was simply that he didn’t like what he saw in it – until he stopped drinking.

‘The Oxford Murders’ opens on 25 April; ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ is scheduled for release next month; ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’, is scheduled for August

The Naked Civil Servant.’Half the stuff I have done which has been successful would never have been made if it had been shown to focus groups. ”Elephant Man” would never have been made. Imagine the pitch for ”Naked Civil Servant”. A self-confessed homosexual who crusades for gay rights. They’d say f— off. You have to be brave’.

The Elephant Man.’Mel Brooks [producer] had the vision, actually. When I read the script it made me cry. I was cast because David Lynch had seen me in ”I, Claudius” and ”Naked Civil Servant”. He encouraged me not to do the same thing, to try something different, so I worked on the sweet voice and demeanour. Nowadays directors want youto do what you’vedone before’.

Love and Death on Long Island.’Great title, super script. Richard Kwietniowski took seven years to get it made. I suppose that was better than the20-odd years it took to make ”Gandhi”. When Dickie Attenborough was telling me it had taken him 20 years to get it off the ground, I said: ”You did that one? I thought it was David Lean.” He had a bit of a sense of humour failure about that’.


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.