There’s something poetic about the sight of an old man chasing moths around a room cluttered with antique bronzes, glassware and sepia-coloured photographs. The man is Leslie Phillips, the room is on the ground floor of his Victorian house in Maida Vale, north London, the moths are… well, they’re just moths. Phillips claps his freckled hands together and opens them slowly to inspect. ‘Missed,’ he says gloomily. ‘This one’s a sod. I do hate moths.’
Even so, I can’t help feeling that the moths belong here among the rickety chairs, sooty paintings, and musty books stacked crookedly on shelves. They blend with the room’s faded brown-and-cream colour scheme, rather like the 76-year-old actor himself, in fact. It is often noted how pets come to resemble their owners; Leslie Phillips, with dust fairies swirling around him, has come to resemble this room. He’s at one with it. In harmony.
The cord shirt he wears is dark green, his hair is mousey, his smooth cheeks pink. But in the watery, mid-afternoon light, he looks quite frail and his hands shake a little, perhaps because he is just recovering from what he describes as ‘a week on the lav. Nasty tummy bug I picked up while doing a speech for the WI in Scarborough.’ The illness hasn’t affected that refined, warm English beer voice of his. It’s still unhurried, oaky and soothing. And it still makes his every utterance sound vaguely sarcastic. ‘It’s terribly distinctive,’ he says. ‘My voice is recognised as clearly as my face. When I phone, say, the electricity company, they always recognise my voice before I’ve said my name.’ He gets requests to record himself saying, ‘Hel-low,’ in that silky, suggestive way he has, for answering-machines. ‘For some reason it brings a smile to people’s faces,’ he says.
The voice does make it difficult to gauge when he is being serious. Take, for instance, the business of his obituary. He has, he tells me, been brooding on it a lot lately. Why? ‘A giant pie fell on my head a few weeks ago and it got me thinking. I mean, imagine the headlines. What an undignified way to go.’ Did he say pie? ‘Oh, it was a prop for a television programme. Left me with a stiff neck, but I didn’t make a fuss, much to the relief of the producers who clearly thought I was going to sue.’
What really bothers him is that, though he has made more than 100 films, the obituaries are bound to concentrate on the Carry Ons, those and the Doctors. And he only made three of each. He loathes talking about them; finds the way people associate him with them tedious; indeed, in the three hours I’m with him the closest he gets to mentioning the Carry On team is when he refers to ‘the group I was with’.
Frustrated at being typecast as the suave, Brylcreemed Lothario who arched his eyebrow and purred the words ‘ding-dong!’ whenever he saw a pretty nurse, Phillips took the decision at the beginning of the Eighties to accept no more broad comedy roles. ‘My friends, my agent, my bank manager all thought I was mad, because I was at the top of the tree in comedy, but I knew I wasn’t. There was an unnerving lull for a while, then I was offered a straight part in Peter Nichols’s Passion Play. That’s the role I’m most proud of playing. It changed everything for me. I wish the obituaries would lead on that.’ He stares out of the window. ‘But I don’t suppose they will.’
After Passion Play, Phillips was offered numerous stage roles in Shakespeare and Chekhov and, last year, he starred in his own one-man play, On the Whole Life’s Been Jolly Good, about the life and dalliances of a failed and ousted Tory MP (‘I was tremendous in that, a great success’). He says he has earned more from his theatre work than from film, but the change in direction also led to his being given roles in ‘serious’ films such as ‘Scandal’ (1988), ‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987) and ‘Out of Africa’ (1985). ‘The past 25 years have been the most rewarding for me. What goes on the tombstone might be…’ He trails off.
When asked why he continues to work, long after the national retirement age, Phillips says: ‘Work stops me feeling old. I don’t normally think of retirement but the other day a black guy got up for me on the Tube and offered me his seat and I thought, “Oh shit! I must look old. It’s happened.” But my memory still works for learning lines. The fear of fucking it up helps, too.’
A cat wanders into the room and he begins stroking it. Her name is Pushy, he says, and she is a 16-year-old feral, the only one left of nine he brought back from Spain. He has a 200-year-old farmhouse there which he has been restoring for years. At one point his neighbours in Spain were his friends Terry-Thomas and Denholm Elliot. Both dead now, of course, like most of his generation of comedy actors. Of his friends from that group, Ronnie Barker is the only one he still sees regularly. Smashing bloke. ‘I don’t fear death,’ he adds, ‘just illness and senility. But I do sometimes forget I’ve grown older. When I did Lord Lane [in the docu-drama The Birmingham Six] I went in for make-up and they said I didn’t need any, and I said, “But Lane was an old man!” I persuaded them to give me some eyebrows.’
The famous Leslie Phillips’s moustache is white now – distinguished, as the euphemism goes. One of his catchphrases, from a scene in which he looked at himself in a mirror as he put on aftershave, was ‘Oh, you gorgeous beast!’ Perhaps dishonestly, he says he never thought of himself as handsome. ‘I was never pretty. Pleasant-looking, that’s all. As I got older my face looked fuller and more secure-looking. I looked like I had more savoir-faire. I know some actors who can’t accept that when they grow old they have to give up the romantic leads. I often advise them not to reach for the toupee.’
There is another reason why Phillips won’t give up work. ‘I’m an actor who wants to earn a living. All my money went on educating my children, sending them to very good schools.’ He has four from his first marriage, a stepson from his second and 15 grandchildren. ‘Both my sons went to university, something I wish I could have done. One is a lawyer, the other a housemaster, they are both very successful, both lovely people. I was certainly marvellous with my children. Terrific.’
His being driven by a need to make money is understandable, given his background. Phillips was born in Tottenham, north London, in 1924. His father, Fred, worked for Main Gas Cookers and suffered from rheumatic fever, eventually dying from it, aged 41, when Leslie was nine. ‘That had a great impact. My father was a lovely man but he always seemed close to death. My mother was always having to look after him. She was my real role model.’
As there was no Social Security at the time, his mother, Cecilia, found it a struggle to bring up three children in the family home in Chingford, Essex, where the family moved. She took in sewing and, inspired by Leslie’s victory in a beautiful baby competition, decided to put her son on the stage to bring in extra money. She answered a small ad for child actors, which led to Leslie appearing, aged ten, in a touring production of Peter Pan with Anna Neagle. From the age of 14, he was on tour more or less permanently. Actors such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Rex Harrison became his surrogate uncles. ‘They were my family. Very kind. They encouraged me to read books and educate myself.’
As most West End actors were called up when war broke out, the 15-year-old Leslie found himself in demand, and at 17 was appearing in two plays simultaneously. The following year it was his turn to be called up and, partly because he had lost his cockney accent and had learned, through elocution lessons, to talk with an upper-class voice, he was commissioned as an officer.
As part of his training he was shot at with live ammunition, an experience which left his nerves shattered. He was declared medically unfit for battle and put in charge of a base camp in Suffolk. ‘The Army was an education for me,’ he says. ‘It toughened me up.’ Not that the life of an actor in those days was soft, he adds rather defensively. ‘You learned to cope with illness. You had to be dead nearly before you took time off. Nowadays actors stay in bed if they have a sniffle. The one occasion I took a break was when I had a stomach haemorrhage. My former Army MO discovered it. He’s dead now, bless his heart. I told him I felt weak and had awful diarrhoea, and he asked me what colour it was and when I said, “Black,” he said, “You’re bleeding,” and rushed me to hospital for a blood transfusion. I’d been taking too many aspirin, apparently, for my backache. I’ve never touched them since.’
Contrary to his screen image as a rake, there have been only four women in Phillips’s life. The first was when he was 19 and serving in the Army. The second was when he was 24. Her name was Penny and, in 1948, they married. Their first child was stillborn. ‘It was ghastly,’ he says. ‘Very difficult to get over.’ The couple had four more children and then, in 1965, divorced after Leslie had an affair with John Mortimer’s stepdaughter Caroline.
He never really wanted to get divorced, he says, Penny divorced him. ‘I don’t really know why it happened. There were lots of factors. I was very fond of her and remained so. The story of why things go wrong is complicated. But it wasn’t a lack of love or care. Love is a very big word, isn’t it?’ He believes the divorce knocked Penny off balance. She wouldn’t let him see the children and would ring his home and leave the phone off the hook so that no one else could get through.
Leslie and Caroline were together for nine years, but, partly because she wanted a baby and he didn’t, they separated, and Leslie began seeing Angela, an actress 23 years his junior. (‘The image of me as a womaniser was misleading,’ he says distractedly, swiping after another passing moth. ‘I always got on with women but I didn’t really have them throwing themselves at me.’ He grins. ‘I much prefer being at home than in a nightclub. I do like my slippers.’)
In 1981 Penny had a stroke. She died 18 months later, in a fire at her nursing home. Phillips married Angela in 1982 and, for six difficult years, had to nurse her through clinical depression. Medication eventually worked and she is much better now. ‘I became withdrawn when Angela was ill because of the stress,’ he says. ‘But our sense of humour held us together.’
In whom did he confide about his various marital problems? ‘I didn’t really confide in my mother. We were close, she kept cuttings about me, but never really understood my business. I sometimes thought this was a pity. None of my family have ever come into the inner part of my life. They wouldn’t have been at ease there.’ And perhaps he wouldn’t have been at ease with them being there. Might he even have felt a twinge of embarrassment about them, having lost his cockney accent and reinvented himself as a toff? ‘I don’t think they felt betrayed. Distanced maybe. They realised it would be virtually impossible to make a career without “talking proper”. They admired me for it.’
In 1984 his mother, then aged 92, was mugged by three boys at a bus stop outside her home in Chingford. When she clung on to her handbag, they battered her with their fists. She was taken to hospital, never fully recovered and died nine months later. For months afterwards he scoured the streets of Chingford looking for the youths, going on the only description police had, that they were black and one of them had been wearing a yellow sweatshirt. ‘I still have strong feelings about that incident,’ he says with a slow blink of his pale blue eyes. ‘You can’t suppress things like that. But equally you have to carry on, you can’t dry up or commit suicide. My sister was closest to her. It ruined her life and she died of grief soon afterwards. They are buried near each other.’ Phillips claps his hands at another passing moth. ‘Oh bugger! Missed.’ The movement makes a strand of his hair flap out of place, over his ear. He smoothes it back.
Leslie Phillips is not an easy man to figure out. There is ennui behind the bonhomie. He describes himself as bossy, though more tolerant now than he was as a young man. His immodesty is Olympian, but self-aggrandisement is often a device people use to counter low self-esteem. When he tells me how good he has been as a father, it is really himself he is trying to convince, I suspect, as if he is still judging himself for the break-up with his first wife. ‘I don’t go to church very often,’ he says at one point, ‘but I’m very good. I’m a good person. I’m not horrible to people.’
Similarly, what comes across as boasting about his career as a serious actor is probably just anxiety that his early comedy work will overshadow it. The role he really wants to play, he says, is King Lear – Sir Antony Hopkins once promised to direct. ‘I don’t know whether I will get the chance now. I doubt it.’
He thinks his early comic roles were vulgar and undignified. He tells me he wanted to do more ‘classy’ roles. The word classy is revealing, especially as he goes on to say that he can’t stand it when people don’t speak clearly, with good diction. ‘Everyone I’ve been associated with romantically has been middle-class. They have been well-spoken.’
He reinvented himself, but he can’t escape the past. How cruel that, instead of being buried and forgotten, all those Carry On films are still being repeated, constantly, all around the world. And one thinks of all those terrible, scarring events from which Phillips can’t escape: the deaths of his father, his mother, his first wife, his first child.
The extent to which he still lives in the shadow of the past is illustrated most clearly, and touchingly, in his attitude to children. ‘I worry about seeing children at risk,’ he tells me. ‘Mothers not holding their children’s hands in traffic, or near the edge of a platform when the train is coming. I can’t stand it and have to intervene sometimes. I have to take the child’s hand myself because I get so terribly anxious.’
Here is a man, then, who can demonstrate a deep understanding of the fragility of life and yet, the next moment, be chuckling to himself as he swipes at another moth. Which is what he does now. It escapes him and flutters in my direction. I grab for it. Success. ‘Well done!’ he says, with the same intonation he used for the words ‘ding-dong!’ all those years ago.


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.