It’s as if Nicholas Parsons has been fired into a pinball machine. As he bustles from one flowerbed to another, bouncing up a hillside here, ricocheting down into a secluded dell there, the bunch of flowers he is collecting grows in size – I can almost hear the bells registering the score. There is another sound in the mind’s ear: the theme tune from the Benny Hill Show, the reedy one which accompanies the speeded-up chase sequences. Inevitable really, this. Nicholas Parsons used to be Benny Hill’s straight man, and once this fact has been absorbed it does tend to haunt the imagination.
There are, too, actual noises disturbing the otherwise tranquil pastureland of the Cotswolds: a distant tractor; the raucous squawks from the rooks nesting in the gangly trees around Parsons’s mid-19th-century lodge; and that crisp and precisely modulated voice so familiar to Radio 4 listeners. It seems strangely disembodied as Parsons bends to pluck another stem: ‘Hello there,’ he shouts over his shoulder. ‘Be with you in a minute.’
My hilarious retort – ‘What? Just a minute!’ – falls flat as Parsons is too far away to hear it, crunching off across his gravelled drive toward another unsuspecting cluster of flowers.
It is one of those trippy English mornings when the colours are so vivid they seem to vibrate: the lime green of the leaf jigs against the pastel blue of the sky, and the glowing yellow of the blooms clashes spectacularly with the bright red of the Parsons v-neck jumper.
Although he is not actually wearing a cravat, the grey polo-neck under the red jumper, the tight grey flannels and the brown suede brogues with toecaps darkened by the dew, all suggest that Parsons is the cravat-wearing type. Probably a driving-glove man, too. It goes with his being tall, trim and dapper; with his wavy silvering hair and unlined pink skin and quite exhausting aura of sprightliness.
He has a distracted air about him, though, and a nervy, anxious way of talking. This becomes apparent when he launches, unsolicited, into a justification of why he still chooses to work at his age. One has a right to go on enjoying one’s success toward the end of one’s career if one had to struggle for success when one was starting out. That’s the flavour of it. Lots of ‘ones’ involved.
As we enter the house, Mrs Parsons – Annie – is just leaving to go shopping. She, warm and cheerful of disposition, follows us back in to make coffee. The couple were married in the Caribbean three years ago. Both had previously been divorced. Both have grown-up children. She, however, is quite a bit younger than he, 20 years maybe. Exactly how much younger is a bit of a mystery, as Parsons is notoriously absent-minded when it comes to his age. It’s 74ish, though he has been known to be about seven years shy of the real figure.
He has a justification for this, too: why should one be judged on one’s age, when one is clearly still young enough to do well all the things one does. It’s a good point. In his inimitable, graceful style – and without hesitation, repetition or deviation – Parsons has been chairing Just a Minute for 30 years now, and the programme is still one of the most popular on Radio 4. He still tours with his one-man comedy show, as well as the more serious show he wrote based on the life of Edward Lear. He still wears fishnets and stilettos when he compres for the Rocky Horror Show. And he still plays the Dame in panto. He is even about to star in a film, though he’s superstitious about elaborating on this until it happens.
But the forgetfulness about his exact date of birth sits oddly with the phenomenal powers of memory he has, though he says so himself, cultivated over the years. He has done this as a way of compensating for his dyslexia. As he sits to attention on a sofa, arms straight by his sides, he explains that, since he was five, following a visit to the circus, he has been driven by a desire to perform and, more importantly, to express himself. He didn’t speak until he was two and a half, and when at last he did, it was with a terrible stutter. He has learnt to control this through breathing techniques and has never suffered from it when performing – though he does succumb to a short bout of it as we talk. Curiously, it happens when he is talking about his stutter.
Such obvious drawbacks to being a performer were cited by his parents when they tried to discourage him from taking to the stage. But there was also a degree of snobbery involved. Nicholas Parsons was born and raised in genteel Grantham, Lincolnshire, where his father, Paul, was a doctor with a rural practice. Lord Brownlow and Alderman Roberts were among the patients, and Dr Parsons almost certainly delivered the baby Margaret. And, as Nicholas’s nanny was good friends with the future Lady Thatcher’s nanny, the two children surely looked across at each other in their prams from time to time.
The Parsons family moved to London when Nicholas was ten and, at his new school, St Paul’s, he was soon nicknamed Shirley – after announcing that he wanted to be a child film star. But then, aged 17, he took an apprenticeship at a pump and turbine firm on the Clyde bank, before going on to read for a degree in engineering at Glasgow University, which he did not complete. All the while he was doing semi-professional acting jobs in his spare time. In 1945 he joined the Merchant Navy, but collapsed with pleurisy and was deemed unfit for action. Discharged after six months in hospital, he was then able to concentrate on his acting career. By the Fifties he had appeared on stage in the West End and on screen in minor roles, but mostly it was cabaret and, as he puts it, ‘wet, bloody juvenile leads’. It was not until 1960 when he appeared on television playing the upper-class foil to the comedian Arthur Haynes’s working man that he found stardom.
‘My parents did everything they could to stop me being an actor,’ Parsons recalls with an imperious look down his imperious nose. ‘They thought the life of an actor was decadent and indecent and full of sexual perversion. I once told my mother that she was being illogical because she loved Dame Edith Evans and Leslie Howard. I asked her if she thought they were like that and she said, ‘No. But isn’t it a pity that they have to work with people who are?’ I took the job on the Clyde to please my parents. It was tough and demanding, and I found myself working with some really rough diamonds. They used to send me up because I talked ‘like thet’ – but in the end they accepted me because I was a good mimic and I was able to take off the foreman with the loose dentures. Having had those five years on Clyde bank I have never been able to take myself too seriously.’
Oh no? Another legacy of his childhood struggle with dyslexia is that he has to order his thoughts in a strictly linear way. When he is asked a question that is lateral to the subject being discussed, he simply postpones answering it. ‘I’ve got one of those logical minds which means that once I’ve started on a line of thought I have to finish it,’ he explains, as if it is the Northern Irish Peace Talks he is discoursing upon. ‘Shall we finish the childhood background? I found my dyslexia left me with a good memory. I didn’t need to refer to my diaries or my scrapbook for dates or names when I was writing my autobiography.’
He can remember every detail from his time at prep school, he says. ‘It was a Dickensian place. Tenterton Hall, Hendon. Truly horrendous and miserable. It’s now been pulled down. It was very disciplined and insensitive. The ogre of the place was the matron who was just so utterly – well, I want to use the same word again and my training on Just a Minute is stopping me – but she was so insensitive. Dressed in the full regalia of a matron in the war. Forbidding. Mrs Blanch. Ruled the dormitories with a rod of iron. And because I suffered from migraine attacks I had to have certain foods. She was a cow. She slippered me and – it doesn’t really work to tell it like this, but it’s a good anecdote in my one-man show, where I do all the voices – she was obsessed with little boys’ bowels, and believed that as long as they opened every morning a boy would remain healthy. She would line us up and ask us about our movements for that day and if they weren’t up to scratch she would administer syrup of figs or castor oil.’
Inevitably, Parsons adds, when he started seeing a Freudian psychiatrist in the Fifties, the bowel theme was seized upon. At this point, in the sitting-room, two grandfather clocks start chiming in unison, either side of me. One of his great passions in life is assembling or repairing them. Anything mechanical will do, in fact. The room has a cosily cluttered feel to it: horse-brasses, corn dollies, silver heart-shaped picture-frames, hunting prints, and copper kettles full of acorns.
The room and its homely touches remind you why the appeal of Nicholas Parsons is so enduring, and why his career in comedy has had a renaissance, especially on the university circuit. Contrary to his claims, though, he doesn’t really go in for self-parody. He is the eternal straight man, the ingénu lost outside his own world. If we thought he was in on the joke, it wouldn’t be funny any more. He once played to an audience of just four, for the full 90 minutes of his one-man show. ‘Of course, we all crave the reaction of an audience as compensation for a perceived lack of affection in our private lives,’ he says. ‘I think all of us have insecurities about which we are seeking reassurance from our audience. I’ve been a straight man to more living and dead comics than anyone else. I have seen the desire to go out and hear that audience reaction and the distress when it doesn’t occur.’
Intellectual insecurity seems to be Parsons’s biggest problem. He is keen to point out that he was Rector of St Andrews University, for instance, and that he was awarded an honorary doctorate. This insecurity really comes to light, though, when he is talking about Kenneth Williams, for many years the petulant, flamboyant, quixotic star turn of Just a Minute. ‘Kenneth liked to show off his erudition,’ Parsons says.
‘It’s something I understand actually, because here was a chap who had a great gift for entertainment and enjoyed making people laugh but who found that people in this country are suspicious of those who have that gift. They always want to put labels on you and I find it irritating. I’ve been described variously as a light comedian, a game-show host, a voice-over man, a variety artist, a West End actor, and yet I’m all these things. It’s rather dogged me and only now, at my age, have I been accepted as an all-rounder. Kenneth found he enjoyed the arts and literature later in life and started to educate himself. He enjoyed making the Carry On films, but I don’t think he was proud of them. When I do my Edward Lear show you could say that it’s a cultured show. When I was in Ireland doing it – and I don’t say this out of conceit – but this man came up to me afterwards and said he thought I was a closet intellectual. He said this because he recognised I have aspirations to give vent to a more intellectual side.’
A raw nerve is touched when it is mentioned that the successful quiz show Sale of the Century, which was broadcast ‘live from Norwich’, is the thing for which he is best remembered. After all, it did run for 14 years and in 1976 had the highest viewing figures of anything on television. It even inspired a legendary piece of graffiti in letters six feet tall on a London bridge: NICHOLAS PARSONS IS THE OPIUM OF THE MASSES. As the unctuous host with the fixed smile, Parsons had to ask questions such as, ‘What shouldn’t you do if you live in a glass house?’ A typical prize was a washing-machine.
‘I’m not most famous for that,’ Parsons now says. ‘It’s only because it ran for so many years that it lingers in the memory. The people who have seen me doing a Stephen Sondheim in the West End remember me more for that. Sale of the Century was not a way of life. It was just a good job that paid a good salary, and subsidised a lot of other things I was doing at the time.’
Another exposed nerve is touched when Parsons is asked whether his late father – whom he describes as a distant, cerebral Victorian figure who had difficulty in communicating his emotions – was proud of his son’s fame as a quiz master. ‘I’m sure my father would have been proud if I had succeeded in a more cultural area. It was difficult for him to give out affection. When he was dying from Parkinson’s disease in hospital, he became very weak and his mind began to wander. Then he suddenly said, ‘Sale of the Century is on.’ And he was right. We watched it and he said, ‘I always thought it was very clever the way you speeded up at the end of the show and built up all that excitement and drama.’ I knew he had occasionally watched the show but here he was on his death-bed paying me this beautiful compliment, and I was very touched and moved. I said, ‘Thank you, Dad, that’s very sweet of you. I think you should have a nice sleep now.’ I went out for a few minutes and when I came back I kissed him on the forehead and realised he had gone into his death sleep.’
At the memory of this, Nicholas Parsons falters and tears well up in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says with a trembling smile when he recovers. ‘This is the actor in me. Our emotions are very close to the surface.’
The clocks chime in unison again, I swallow the lump in my throat and change the subject back to his love of fixing mechanical things. We do not dwell upon it for too long before Parsons jumps to his feet and asks if I would like to come outside to see the barn he has converted into an office. He has a collection of photographs of himself posing with his celebrity chums there. Would I like to see them?
Of course, I would.


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.