With a slow sideways glance I take in the silvering hair and craggy profile of the Yorkshireman sitting on my side of a round dining-table in the airy elegance of Bibendum in Chelsea. For several minutes I’ve been lost in my thoughts, imagining him propping up a bar in a working men’s club in Barnsley, and only vaguely listening to him on the theme of how t’ bloody presenters today don’t know they’re born, how you can’t find t’ bloody producers any more, and how t’ bloody guests aren’t up to much either.
I’ve been nodding distractedly, contributing in my head the odd ‘aye’ or ”appen, tha’s right’ whenever they’ve seemed appropriate. But now he’s talking about how there’s never been an interviewer to match old Parky. Now, he could ask a question. And listen to the answer. Knew the art of conversation, you see. A proper journalist. Not like these daft young buggers you get nowadays.
As he’s talking, I almost forget that the man is actually Michael Parkinson in person, and that he’s not wearing a donkey jacket and sipping Tetley’s but a blazer and Armani tie, and is sipping an agreeably crisp, perfectly chilled Premier Cru Chablis ’94.
The daydream is possibly only because of the way the 62-year-old puts you at ease by transporting you metaphysically to his home turf. As he talks, he leans toward you conspiratorially, inviting you to follow his eye in looking out over the other diners, as if it’s us against them, the rest of the world. And you find yourself agreeing with his things-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be prejudices; and laughing at his too-close-to-the-knuckle Bernard Manning impersonations; and glowing when he asks you about yourself and has the decency at least to sound as if he’s interested in your answer.
He makes you appreciate (in a manly, back-slapping, locker-room way, you understand) why television’s Mrs Merton was moved to break away from her prepared questions to him, chew her lip earnestly and blurt out, ‘Oh Parky, I think I love you.’ And this effect he has on people is the reason why 12 million viewers regularly watched the talk show he hosted from 1971 to 1982. It’s why his guests, lulled into a sense of intimacy despite the cameras, were always so keen to come back on, year after year (thereby, in the manner of Rembrandt, leaving behind a self-portrait of themselves growing old). And it’s why the long-awaited return of Parkinson, which begins a new, 20-week series in January, is being hailed as the television equivalent of Elvis Presley’s ‘Comeback Special’ in 1968.
But Parkinson’s relaxed, saloon-bar manner is only part of the appeal. The prospect of a glimpse of his dark underbelly is also what keeps you watching: the arrogance, the bluntness, the volatile nature that has our man weeping with laughter one moment and looking so angry he might grab a guest by the lapels the next. Over lunch he lays the coarse, bluff, speak-as-I-find Yorkshireman stuff on pretty thick – as you’d expect – but it’s only a slight exaggeration of what is really there. The word ‘bloody’ is used 14 times, ‘bugger’ eight (including two ‘daft buggers’) and ‘bollocks’ three. The easy and cynical explanation for why he does this – and the one he himself gives – is that being a professional northerner is how he makes his living. But he also does it, you suspect, because he genuinely does need to remind himself – and us – that he is Jack and Freda Parkinson’s lad, an only child who grew up in a council house in the Yorkshire pit village of Cudworth, near Barnsley. And his reasons for wanting to do this are altogether more Byzantine.
His father, who died in 1975, was one of 17 children. He went down the pit when he was 12 and, to discourage his son from doing the same, took him down in the Grimethorpe cage one Sunday. The sight of men working on their bellies in a three-foot-by-six seam, breathing in coal dust, terrified the young Michael Parkinson. When he mumbled that he didn’t fancy working there after all, his father, relieved, told him that if he ever changed his mind he’d kick his arse all the way home.
‘It was an awful bloody life,’ Parkinson says. ‘My father used to tip up and be given back half a crown a week from my mother. People talk about pressure today. I mean, you hear some frigging footballer complaining. Pressure? My father had to be up at four. You didn’t get paid till you reached the seam. You’d been walking for three bloody hours before you got there, then you’d spend the day on your hands and knees a mile underground.’
Such conditions may seem like the stuff of Monty Python parody today, but it is sobering to hear someone who actually knew that life reflect upon it. Parkinson went back to Grimethorpe this summer and found the mine had been concreted over and half the shops boarded up. The trip left him with mixed feelings. Mining is a brutish way to earn a living, he says, and if other employment had been found for the community he wouldn’t mourn its passing. But he has warm memories of waiting outside the Working Men’s Institute for his father, listening to the ‘bloody marvellous’ singing inside. His watery blue eyes crease at the sides and his whiskery eyebrows do a tango as he goes on to recall his father’s distinctive laugh. ‘He would embarrass me in movies by laughing so loud he would be asked to leave by the manager.’
When asked whether he thinks his personality would have been the same if he had followed his father down the pit, Parkinson broods for a moment. ‘I don’t know,’ he concludes. ‘Never thought about it. I look at some of my friends, though, when I go back to Barnsley, and I think I wouldn’t have minded being them. They’re a bright lot. I’d have still voted the way I do. I’d have still thought the same about the MCC. I would still not have believed in the honours system. I’d have hated rudeness. And causing offence. All the fundamental things that I learned on my father’s knee would still be there.’
With a wry look around the restaurant, Parkinson muses that whenever he took his father to such a place he would never dare show him a menu with the prices on or let him see the bill. ‘But he wouldn’t be bothered by it. We were once in a place like this and he came out of the  toilet and said, “Ay up, there’s a lad in there who knows you.” And it turned out he’d been standing next to a stranger at the urinal and just came out and asked, “Do you know my lad, Michael Parkinson?” He was very proud. He used to love the fact that I would meet all these old birds he had fancied on the silver screen. I’ve just started dreaming about him, as it happens. Nice pleasant dreams, where he’s part of the family still. But the awful thing is, when I wake up it comes as a shock that he’s not alive.’
For the son, the family sin of pride seems to have evolved into an attitude to the effect that, however much those effete southerners tried to patronise him, he knew he was just as good as them, if not better. This would account for his stubborn refusal to go native. Despite the urbane media world Parkinson has inhabited for much of his adult life, he has never succumbed to liberal correctness. At one point he says the reason there hasn’t been a successful women talk-show host is that they find it difficult to unhook their corsets and let the cellulite out. Imagine his fellow professional northerner Melvyn Bragg saying that. Later, to illustrate why the timing of a joke is more important than its content, Parkinson repeats a Bernard Manning joke about racial minorities, knowing how provocative it will seem in print but not really caring. He then laughs so hard, while banging the table with the flat of his hand, that flecks of spittle appear at the corners of his mouth.
It is telling, too, that, despite living in the south for most of his life, Parkinson’s flat northern vowels have never really softened much. ‘I kept my accent because it was economically viable to do so,’ he says. ‘No sense in changing it. When I started at Granada TV in the Sixties everyone had a northern accent. It was the same time as the Beatles and all the northern playwrights and actors. Tom Courtenay. Albert Finney. People who spoke posh were trying to affect Yorkshire accents. Before that I would have been lucky to get a job as a doorman at the BBC. There was a new hierarchy. Jack was becoming as good as his master.’
Keeping the accent, then, seems to have required conscious effort. And the determination not to assimilate seems to have been fuelled by a very Yorkshire trait which southerners are wont to misinterpret as chippiness: a superiority complex. This reveals itself in the way that Parkinson refers to his famous guess by their surnames alone. Welles. Burton. Ali. Lennon. And in this he reminds you of Frank ‘Oi! No!’ Doberman, the thuggish Harry Enfield character who sits in a pub proving he’s just as good as the celebrities he rants about by refusing to use the first names they’re always known by – as in ‘Black’ rather than ‘Cilla Black’. At one stage, the similarity becomes too much for me and I nearly choke on my Chablis. ‘I’m a great admirer of Harris,’ Parkinson says of Rolf Harris. ‘He’s talented, energetic and kind. And I’m delighted that he is considered hip now. And he’s a great friend. But. There was one time when he came on to my show and…’ Your imagination finishes the sentence: Oi! Harris! No!
‘But if you’re asking would I have been different brought up in genteel Surbiton the answer would be yes. Very different indeed. Down here is still in my mind where the fat cats are. And it’s good to succeed and become a fat cat. Why not? I don’t trample on people. I’ve never been a jealous type. But I’m competitive and I have encountered snobbery about my background from people at the BBC.’
This reached its peak when Parkinson took over Desert Island Discs, from 1986 to 1988, after the death of Roy Plomley. ‘The fact that Plomley was the worst bloody interviewer in the world had nothing to do with it,’ he says. ‘The worst thing was that his widow began a one-woman campaign to preserve the memory of her husband and she started complaining, “What is this crude northern oik doing walking on my husband’s grave? The accent is too common.” I was too wily to respond then. But she was… nasty.’
He doesn’t need to say so directly, but Parkinson clearly believes he is the ‘best bloody interviewer in the world’ because of his background in journalism. After leaving Barnsley Grammar School at the age of 16 he began work as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post. He soon made it down to Fleet Street, via the Manchester Guardian, and recalls how, callow and wide-eyed, he would sit at the back in pubs getting silently drunk as he listened to the big-name journalists he had hero-worshipped since childhood regale everyone at the crowded bar with their anecdotes. Since 1991 he has been writing a sports column for the Daily Telegraph. And even journalists not interested in sport would have to acknowledge that as an example of how to write vividly, evocatively and unpretentiously it takes some beating.
‘I find writing the most satisfying thing I do,’ he says. ‘I hate watching myself on television. And I never listen to a broadcast I’ve done on radio. But I always reread everything I’ve written. Over and over and over again. And every time I do I always say, “You daft bugger, why did you use that word there?” Sub-editors hate me. But in the end you’ve signed that document and it’s going to be around for ever. All that tomorrow’s chip-paper stuff is nonsense.’
With characteristic frankness he says the main reason he was tempted into television is that it pays so well. ‘I can earn more from one TV show, Antique Quiz, than I can in six months of writing that column. I’m not making a judgement. But that’s the proposition put to you. The reason I have stayed in newspapers anyway is because that’s what I am. My passport says journalist. I’m proud to be one. I know how to do it.’
That said, he believes one advantage which the television interview has over the newspaper one is that the viewers can make their own minds up. ‘They can sit there watching a guest and think, “You lying shit.”’ He thinks for instance that the many interviews he did with Kenneth Williams revealed the comedian’s true cold side. ‘I didn’t like Williams and he didn’t like me. And it showed. I wouldn’t be so rude as to say that if he was alive, but it’s true. Towards the end, we were like two sniffing dogs. The first time we met he wrote in his diary that I was a vulgar North Country nit. The trick was to get him with good company, like Maggie Smith, so that he would show off.’
With a characteristic lack of modesty, Parkinson goes on to admit that he was no slouch when it came to getting the best out of his female guest, too. The man who has been described as having the sexiest eyes in television says, ‘I used to flirt outrageously with Shirley Maclean and she with me. Outrageously. And with Raquel Welch.’
He says that if he worked in television in America he would have to  have plastic surgery, but you know he knows that he’s still in pretty good shape and still has that twinkle in his eye. He has been married for 18 years to Mary. They live at Bray, by the Thames in Berkshire, in the house where they brought up their three sons (now in their late twenties and early thirties, they work in publishing, radio and the food and beverage industry). Mary Parkinson once described how Michael would splash aftershave on his face, adjust his tie, wink at the mirror and say ‘By gum, you’re a handsome bugger, Parky.’ It was intended as a tease to his wife – who would retaliate that he was ‘a miserable bugger, more like’ – but it is, you suspect, what he really thinks.
In marriage, he says, you have to expect choppy water. ‘All this bollocks that you can live together without ever having a cross word. You  muddle through.’ He has said that whenever he rows with his wife he is always the first to make up. When his wife also took a job as a presenter on television, he said, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of resentment. And there have been times when, like all journalists, he’s drunk too much and become maudlin, but on such occasions he has tended to explode and then feel remorseful immediately afterwards.
He chuckles when he’s asked how, at the height of his fame in the Seventies, he resisted carnal temptation. ‘I used to think of Barnsley football club,’ he says. He believes that if he had been younger when his talk show was running his fidelity might have been tested more than it was. ‘I would have had a far different lifestyle,’ he says. ‘Fame is a strange thing to deal with. No one tells you about it. You have to learn. It helped that I was in a stable marriage with three kids. I’d seen first-hand how people could be affected by fame. George Best. The Beatles. Elton John. I never went to druggy pop-star parties, though. And Mary came to all my shows, so did my father and mother.’
His mother, now 86, lives in a thatched cottage near Oxford, where she was born. He sees her regularly and says she is in ‘good nick’ (she delivered ‘meals on wheels’ until recently and served only one person older than herself). To help with the housekeeping she used to design knitwear and her son learned to type by having his mother dictate knitting patterns to him. ‘Knit two, tog, knit one, purl one,’ Parkinson says with a grin as he mimes tapping out the keys, his hands dappled in the silvery blond light from the large windows in the restaurant.
Parkinson is scathing about Channel Five’s Jack Docherty, the latest pretender to his throne. ‘His show looks like it’s been shot in a shoe cupboard,’ he says. ‘And he’s not a proper journalist. They always say so-and-so is going to be the next Parkinson, but how can they be when they don’t understand what I understand about the talk show? I’m not being arrogant here. It’s like expecting me to be the next Yehudi Menuhin when I can’t play a violin. Don’t be daft. It’s like Bernard Manning. Is he funny or is he not?’ He thumps the table for emphasis, suspending a fork momentarily in the air. ‘All that counts is whether I can interview, whether I can do my job. If I can’t, then go home.’
This appeared in December 1997. A few days later a letter arrived at the Sunday Telegraph: ‘In his interview with me Nigel Farndale quotes me as saying “I am the best bloody interviewer in the world”. This is news to me. I will give £1000 to charity if Mr Farndale can prove I said that or indeed anything remotely like it. For one thing I don’t regard interviewing as an Olympic event, but most importantly of all I am not that daft…. He has a lot of explaining to do.
I replied: ‘The article said ‘He doesn’t need to say so directly, but Parkinson clearly believes he is the best bloody interviewer in the world because of his background in journalism.’ This was intended as a light-hearted observation, picking up what Mr Parkinson said about Roy Plomley being “the worst bloody interviewer in the world.”‘


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.