Pavarotti wanted new boots; Elizabeth Taylor, dim lighting; Francis Bacon, drink – lots of it. As ‘The South Bank Show’ celebrates its 30th birthday, Nigel Farndale meets its presiding genius, Melvyn Bragg – and talks to some of his best-known friends, fans and critics

When The South Bank Show was first broadcast 30 years ago this month, The Daily Telegraph was less than ecstatic. ‘The title does not inspire confidence,’ the paper sniffed. ‘It sounds like yet another addition to ITV’s endless song-and-dance spectaculars.’ Having dug this particular cutting out of the archive, I figure it would be rude not to show it to the man who has presented the programme from the start, Melvyn Bragg; Lord Bragg as he has become.

He laughs the laugh of the vindicated. ‘Actually the word “show” was slapped on the end by Michael Grade when he commissioned the first series. We had slogged away for months trying to find a title. I had wanted to call it Imagine, but we couldn’t get the rights to the Lennon song, so we had to think again.’

Bragg, 68, is sitting in The South Bank Show’s office at the top of the ITV tower on… the South Bank. He is wearing startlingly red socks which seem to be an apology for the greyness of his suit. Behind his desk is a framed poster for a Constable exhibition, which is what you would expect. A nearby shelf displays some of the 120 awards the show has won over the years – and that, too, might be what you’d expect. It could be the subliminal association one has with the word ‘brag’, but you suspect the man’s ego is stout. It’s not, as it turns out, but we shall come to that.

For now we are both admiring the extravagant views over the Thames, with St Paul’s to one side and the London Eye to the other. ‘It was this location that inspired the title,’ Bragg says with a neat circle of his wrist. ‘I was opening the Sunday arts sections looking for ideas and all the reviews seemed to say “on the South Bank”. That’s where we are, so I thought, why not? By that time we already had our signature tune with its 16-beat opening – bom, bom, bom – that fit precisely with the 16 letters of the title, so for the graphic artist Pat Gavin it was a gift. Each letter had a beat.’

The music he refers to is, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations (on a theme by Paganini), which is as much a part of the show’s identity as Bragg himself. The composer had first played it to Bragg on a tape recorder when he was in the process of moving house and, to Bragg, it seemed to fill the empty and echoey room in which they were both standing. Until that moment he had been toying with the idea of using Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

Move over, Ingmar Bergman

Bragg was a fresh-faced 38 then – the Express described him as the ‘Thinking girl’s Michael Parkinson.’ He had a rugged, working-class background – his father being a publican in Cumberland – a grammar school education and, as well as a history degree from Oxford, 15 years’ experience in arts television (having worked on Monitor and Read all About It for the BBC). He also had eight well-regarded novels to his name (that total has now gone up to 19, with another one out this spring).

He has two regrets about the launch of the show. The first was that the format was wrong. Although then, as now, it was an hour long, the first half-hour was given over to arts reviews while the second half was a film profile. ‘After six weeks I went to Michael [Grade, then chairman of ITV] and said I want to go on-screen – “give us another six weeks and we’ll get it right.” One hour-long profile.And so we did.’

The second regret concerns the subject of those profiles, or rather the manifesto Bragg wrote, the one that argued that the singing of Elvis Presley was as interesting as the singing of Pavarotti. To drive the point home, he featured Paul McCartney on the first show, even though he had profiles of Ingmar Bergman and Herbert von Karajan ready to be broadcast (they were aired at later dates). The arts critics were horrified. The Telegraph’s arts correspondent declared: ‘My own definition of the arts would stop short of Lennon-McCartney ballads.’

Nowadays, of course, no one would take issue with the cultural significance of The Beatles. Even so, ‘I’ve never done a manifesto since,’ Bragg says. ‘It was stupid of me. The trouble was, I was in an evangelical mood. I had accepted through university that quite a few of the things I enjoyed, such as the blues and radio drama, were not “the arts”. The arts were opera and ballet and so on. But I had begun to realise that this was not the case. I thought, why not treat high culture and popular culture equally? It doesn’t always work, because popular literature, for me, doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as popular music. But still, the critics hated that idea, like your man there in the Telegraph. We got roughed up and I wondered how long I was going to last.’

But the show soon found its feet. There was some shrewd talent-spotting in the first few seasons: up-and-coming writers such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan were featured, as well as the relatively unknown Dennis Potter (it was a first for an arts programme to take television drama seriously in this way). There were also plenty of the more traditional heavyweight arts figures featured, such as Tippett, Auerbach, Truffaut, Hockney and Kurosawa.

We talk about some of the more memorable profiles over the years – there have been more than 800 in all. Olivier was like an onion. ‘Peel off one skin and you found another below. I knew about the rages, but there was no way we were going to get them on camera, even with fly on the wall, because Olivier could sense a camera 600 yards away.’ Pinter, meanwhile, behaved like a character from one of his own plays. ‘All the pauses, all the awkwardness. I was tempted to cut myself out of it, but I’m glad I left it in. I thought, f— it, I’m not going to be intimidated.’ Elizabeth Taylor would not appear until she had had all the lighting rearranged, which took longer than the interview itself. ‘She directed the whole film.’ And Pavarotti liked Bragg’s boots so much, Bragg offered to have some made for him. The opera singer stood on a piece of paper while Bragg drew round his feet.

Darkness on the South Bank

Some golden moments then, but this is not to say the detractors went away. Private Eye lampooned Bragg as ‘the unavoidable Barg’ and later as ‘Lord Barg of Ubiquity’. I asked Richard Ingrams, then editor of the Eye, why this was. ‘I suppose because The South Bank Show seemed pretentious compared with Monitor, which had been the best arts programme up to that point. It is the grovelling to artistic folk one finds objectionable. Pop stars, I mean. The show wants to elevate pop to the cultural level of classical, and plainly it doesn’t belong there. But hats off to old Barg. He’s got staying power.’

This is the recurring theme when you talk to people about the show. Even the director Ken Russell, who is a friend of Bragg’s, takes this line. Russell worked on the show many times over the years, beginning with a profile of Elgar. More recently he was seen and heard drunkenly heckling at the South Bank Show Awards. ‘Melvyn’s heart is in the right place. If he goes, that will be the end of arts programming in this country – because the BBC has already gone. How has it changed over the years? I think they do more fluffy stuff than they did. McCartney was fine because he is a real star. But Dusty Springfield? Too slight.’

Actually, the number of pop acts has always been about the same. It’s the calibre of them that seems to have changed. The Tom Robinson Band was fair enough because, as Bragg says, ‘they represented a phenomenon; the increasing influence of gay performers in the arts.’ George Michael and Annie Lennox also made for fascinating profiles, not least because they were articulate in the way they analysed their own work. (The Michael one caused a stir because he was filmed smoking a joint.) But as one goes through the programme lists over the years, certain less weighty pop acts do leap out: Hot Chocolate, Barry Manilow, Craig David, Lulu…

Bragg looks puzzled, then his face clears. ‘No, no. That’s Lulu, the opera by Alban Berg.’

How embarrassing. OK, maybe not Lulu then, but what about other lightweight ‘arts’ subjects such as Norman Wisdom? Barbara Cartland? Michael Crawford? Charlotte Church? And, most notoriously, the glam rock band The Darkness? Remember them? Exactly.

‘Yep. Yep. The Darkness were a ship that passed in the night,’ Bragg says. ‘But when I get enthusiasm from a very good producer in an area where I feel uncertain… I thought Susan [Shaw] had a good shot at it, but there you are.’ He clicks his fingers, a habit of his.

Later, when I put this same point to Michael Grade, who recently came back to ITV as chairman, he said: ‘But you have to remember that is how the show was pitched to me. It was meant to be iconoclastic and contemporary. Sometimes that means taking a punt on something which may not last. Beside, when I look back over the 30 years of the show, the landmarks are not the profiles of pop stars but programmes such as the making of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling. It was groundbreaking and beautiful. It attracted the highest audience ballet has ever had on television.’

(In terms of viewing figures, The South Bank Show rarely dips below a million, which is about on a par with Newsnight, and it has been as high as eight million for – sigh – Michael Flatley. That’s popular culture for you.)

Bragg bites back

Another recurring theme as you look back through the archives has been Bragg’s stiff letters to editors. There were dozens of them. When, for example, Giles Smith wrote in the Independent in 1992 that ‘everyone agrees The South Bank Show has gone down market’ our man couldn’t contain himself. ‘I think this falls into the category of factual error,’ he wrote to the paper. ‘I’d be intrigued to know your definition of down market. Does it include David Lodge, Heinrich Schiff, Arthur Miller, José Carreras… There were indeed intelligent essays by Lenny Henry on funk and The Pet Shop Boys on pop, but these more popular subjects came well within traditional South Bank Show parameters.’

So. The letters. Is it that he’s easily wounded? ‘Yeah, I used to get very pissed off, but I’ve stopped doing that now.’ He grins. ‘Actually that’s not quite true because I just sent one off to the Express the other day. I do reach for the pen. Actually the number of letters I don’t write shows great restraint.’ He only remembered the bad reviews, he adds. ‘I will say, “Did you read what that bastard said in the Croydon Herald?” Of course no one has read it.’ It was telling that when I mentioned the Telegraph article of 30 years ago he immediately said, ‘Do you mean the one by Sean Day-Lewis?’ I didn’t, but I duly dug it up and it described Bragg as ‘a neurotic workaholic quite unlike the relaxed and affable (or smug and self-satisfied, as some see him) Bragg who appears on and off the screen.’

Love the film, darling

Another recurring theme is what Richard Ingrams calls the grovelling. The danger is that his subjects agree to be profiled because they have new work to plug and when the work turns out to be a turkey, as with Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, it can be discomforting. This was why The Sunday Times in 1994 described the show as the Hello! of the arts. ‘The marquessa (alias Melvyn Bragg) tends to ask his interviewees to agree with his impression that they and their latest products are absolutely marvellous.’

A case in point was the recent South Bank Show profile of the airport novelist Ken Follett. It did rather take him at his own estimation. ‘Actually, I don’t think it did,’ Bragg counters. ‘We wanted to go behind the scenes to watch a big bestseller being written and marketed. That approach hadn’t been tried before. Follett went to his American agent and asked if it was OK and was told, “No, Ken, you’ve got to have sex in it. And dogs.” Then he went to a historian for advice and so on. I suppose we risked it becoming an advertisement for the new book.’

So does he think he sometimes gives people an easy ride, avoiding the awkward issues? ‘I’ve never – maybe once or twice, but accidentally – talked about people’s private lives. You could say that is a mistake, but I haven’t. I didn’t talk to Mailer about his six wives because I wanted to talk to him about his work – Gary Gilmour and reincarnation and crime. That was the deal in my mind. Always thought, let’s go for the work and the rest will somehow come out. The face and gesture will reveal the rest. Television is like a lie detector in that respect. My view is that the audience can make up their own minds. We did Kevin Spacey the other night and reviewers asked why we didn’t ask him why his early plays had failed, but I knew what he would say. That his plays have a right to fail. Why should we spend 14 weeks making a programme in order to demolish someone’s reputation? What is the point? What’s in it for us? Besides, we would end up not being able to get anyone to appear on the show. Authors, especially, can be pretty precious and paranoid. I could name a few, but I won’t.’

Did he wonder whether he was exploiting the painter Francis Bacon by showing him drunk? ‘But we were both drunk! Plastered. By the end of the day the room was spinning. We had started drinking at 9am when he came out with Bollinger, then we carried on drinking and filming over lunch and into the evening. But curiously I was asking things that were OK. I looked like, well, what I looked like, but I thought keep it in, keep it in.’

Melvyn and his mates

Bacon was a friend of his. Does he ever feel compromised by moving in the same circles as these people – dinner parties, book launches and so on – chatting cosily with his chums Martin, Harold and Salman one day, then making films about them the next? ‘I don’t move in those circles as much as you might think. I bet I don’t go to more than four literary parties a year and they will be for friends, Howard Jacobson or Martin [Amis]. Actually, there is sometimes a sense of me putting my own ego under the heel and pressing it down.’

Because he is more famous than the people he is interviewing? ‘Sometimes I feel it gets in the way of my own reputation because I am always associated with interviewing other people. I write my own novels and here I am interviewing other novelists. But there it is.’ Another click of the finger. ‘That is the career I’ve chosen.’

Novelists lead isolated lives and Bragg discovered early on that his appetite for solitude was limited. In fact it brought about acute depression. I ask whether he craves office life now almost as a survival mechanism. ‘Running this office has saved me, in a way. You think, it has happened twice, it could happen again.’

It? ‘For about a year, when I was 13 and 14, I had a massive breakdown. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Out-of-body experiences a dozen times a day. Terrible depression. I got through that by working very hard at school. Ridiculously hard. And I loved it. Work was a liberation. At the end of my twenties I had another very serious crack-up. I got through that period by working hard, too. Keeping busy.’

That was when his first wife, Lisa, killed herself after a long struggle with mental and physical illness. They had one child. (Two years after her death, in 1973, Bragg married the writer and film-maker Cate Haste. They have two grown-up children.)

I ask if his depression gave him an empathetic advantage with certain interviewees, such as Victoria Wood. ‘Not really, but what I think I do have is a nervousness around my edges, which I think can be reassuring for the people I am talking to. It’s a sort of self-consciousness. You’ll be surprised to hear I cut myself out of films a lot.’

Is that insecurity or vanity? ‘Um, I think a touch of both. Nearly always though it is to speed the programme up. Speaking of which…’

While he goes off to do a voice-over for a forthcoming profile of the pianist Lang Lang, I have a wander around the offices and meet some of his team, such as Jack, a callow youth who has just joined as a runner. Archie Powell, who did a South Bank Show film on Alan Bennett, started as a runner, it seems. Another step onto the ladder is to become a researcher. I meet Jonathan Levi, a former researcher who is now, at 29, a producer. He had been Bragg’s researcher on the always edifying In Our Time. ‘Melvyn has been a mentor,’ he says. ‘He has taught me so much. If you come to him with the right idea he will let you get on with it.’ At the moment he is working on profiles of Simon Cowell, Gore Vidal and Ronnie Corbett. As well as Ken Russell, James Ivory and Ken Loach have also worked as directors on the show. Loach had a contretemps with Bragg when a film he made about the miners’ strike was pulled on the grounds that it was too political. Bragg persuaded Channel 4 to air it instead. ‘He’s always quite defensive about that,’ Loach says of Bragg. ‘He was very fair, but it was a shocking story.’ Not all the alumni have been as distinguished as this. One ex-producer ended up a mini-cab driver, but no one on the staff will tell me his name.

Last autumn the number of full-time staff was reduced from 12 to four and the department was restructured as ‘specialist factual and arts for ITV Productions.’ But, unusually for an arts programme, The South Bank Show has just been given the thumbs-up for at least the next three years, a re-commission that coincided with the return to ITV of Michael Grade.

I meet one of the longest-serving producers, Susan Shaw – blonde hair, black clothes, degree from Oxford. She has worked on the show since 1989. ‘We are all expected to be as conversant with the works of Stravinsky as Kylie,’ she says. They have been trying to get Kylie, it transpires. And Madonna and Robbie Williams. But isn’t Kylie, lovable though she is, borderline Justin Hawkins?

‘Oh my God!’ Shaw claps a hand over her mouth. ‘The Darkness was one of mine! I will admit that that was a problematic show, because viewers expect a degree of gravitas. My point of view as the director was that it would be ludicrous to try and bring gravitas to The Darkness. I didn’t want them to be interviewed by Melvyn because they weren’t big enough or serious enough. But they wanted the Melvyn interview for the kudos. They wanted the furrowed brow. They don’t feel it’s a proper SBS unless they’ve had Melvyn.’

Big boss man

Sometimes, it should be explained, the producers make the films and do the interviews and Bragg just does the introduction. Still, it raises an interesting point. Is The South Bank Show actually the Melvyn Bragg show? Shaw is unequivocal. ‘I think The South Bank Show without Melvyn would be a hollow construct. It would have to be reinvented, given a new name. I hope there will be a future for arts programming at ITV but in my view, without Melvyn, The South Bank Show as a brand no longer exists. He’s the one who has held it together. You would not believe the amount of politicking and corporate manoeuvring he has had to do over the years. Innumerable times he has had to bear his teeth to protect the show against cuts or takeovers. He can be quite a bruiser. There is no one in ITV who can challenge his authority.’

This is a view echoed by Michael Grade. ‘He’s untouchable at ITV. His position here is more secure than mine as chairman.’

It is said that Bragg makes sure he is in charge financially, politically and emotionally. I ask Shaw if this means he is a control freak? ‘On the management side he has to pay such close attention to which way the sands are shifting I would say he is a control freak, but not while we are making the films. He gives you autonomy once you have sold your idea to him and got your budget agreed. He will then leave you to get on with it, until the rough-cut stage. At that moment he really becomes hands-on. If you haven’t delivered what you told him you would deliver, there will be blood on the walls. You may never work for him again.’

Another producer, 32-year-old Matt Cain – a Cambridge graduate who started off in television making soft porn – says that one of the misconceptions about the show is that every programme is made in the same way. ‘Actually, every film is different. For my first one, for example, Melvyn sent me off with a camera for a year to do a video diary with Ian McKellen.’ He grins. ‘You want the dirt on Melvyn? There isn’t any! He’s really sweet and daddyish. He’s a patriarch. He looks after us. As to whether he is The South Bank Show, well, you couldn’t have Coronation Street without Ken Barlow.’

When Nick Park was profiled on the show, he spent two weeks modelling and filming a Plasticine model of Bragg – toothy, crow’s feet, broken nose. It was a funny episode. I look around the office for the model. When Bragg returns for an ideas meeting, I ask if he has it. ‘No, Nick probably put it in a dustbin somewhere.’

Hey, good looking

How does Bragg feel about being caricatured? ‘Some are quite good. But you do wince. We used to follow Spitting Image and one really cracked me up.’ He does an impersonation of himself with a nasal voice: ‘And now The South Bank Show. Please do not forget to turn off your sets.’

He says of his nasal delivery, ‘It’s not adenoids, it’s sinus trouble. I’ve had it since I was 17. My nose was broken. It gives me crippling headaches. I’ve had operations every five years or so.’

The other trademark, of course, is the luxuriant hair. He sighs. ‘I know, I know. I don’t get to the barber’s often enough, that’s the trouble. I do sometimes think, oh not again, when people go on about it. You get a preview of something you have worked on for three months and it’s seven lines long and most of the words are taken up with the f—ing hair. Such a bore. Lazy journalists.’ Does he dye it? ‘Dye it! You must be crackers. Course not. I would never dream of dyeing it. Nor would I have anything done to my increasingly jailbird face. I had a passport photo done this morning and I looked like Magwitch.’

And on that literary allusion, I take my leave. Dickens was a populist, of course. Like Bragg, he had the common touch. As I’m walking back along the South Bank, I reflect on how strange it is that populism in the arts can still be a sensitive subject, even after 30 years of Bragg’s tele-evangelism. It is a remarkable achievement, whichever way you slice it. No one has presented a British TV programme for longer. More importantly, no one has done more to make people in this country think about the arts and question their own prejudices. Does pop deserve a place on the arts spectrum? The South Bank Show is still asking that question. It is the secret of its longevity and success, the reason it still gets talked about. That and the hair. Right, Melvyn?


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.