It has become a journalistic convention, when interviewing Ray Winstone, to say that he is nothing like the hard man he plays on screen; that, actually – who’d have thought it? – he is a rather calm, reflective and polite man. It has become a convention, in other words, for the journalist to dress up a bitter disappointment as an interesting human paradox.

Imagine my joy then when I arrive at a Soho hotel to find the actor in a state of agitation. His blood is up. He has, he tells me, just been sitting in traffic on Shaftesbury Avenue for 40 minutes. ‘I was going about a mile an hour. Facking terrible. Everyone was getting the ‘ump. You find yourself screaming at people out the window. Major rows going on. Facking Livingstone. I would beat that man with a baseball bat.’

I would beat that man with a baseball bat. This from a former boxer who, at 51, still looks as if he could go a few rounds. He has a barrel chest and a jawline like the prow of a ship. His stomach looks fairly flat, certainly not as paunched as it has been. ‘Yeah I’ve been keeping fit. Just had six weeks off. Swimming every day. Steam room. Walking on the treadmill. At the moment I’m drinking once a week and eating sensibly. Cutting out pasta. Have a roast at the weekend. Mind if I smoke?’ This is said without ironic timing. He runs his thoughts together, as he does his words, in a fast-paced East End patter. The cigarette seems to calm him down. Makes him more reflective and polite. Damn.

Ray Winstone is not a leading man exactly, but he is one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood – a favourite of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, no less – and the story of how this West Ham-supporting son of a Plaistow fruit and veg stallholder got there, via bankruptcy (he neglected to pay his taxes) and bouts of unemployment and hard drinking, is worth a movie in itself. His big break was to be cast, almost by accident, in Alan Clarke’s hard-hitting borstal drama Scum in 1979. He went along to the auditions to keep a mate company and the director spotted him in the corridor, or rather he spotted his arrogant, shoulder-rolling boxer’s walk. That was the film in which Winstone delivered the immortal line ‘I’m the daddy now’ after working someone over with an iron rod (as opposed to a baseball bat). It was clear this actor did anger and violence like no one else, not even Robert De Niro. Like a dark forest or a stormy sea, his anger and violence was a force of nature, what the Romantic poets would call ‘the sublime’.

The assumption that he is not acting is partly to do with his voice. He speaks rapidly in a cockney accent so thick you could stand a spade up in it, on screen and off. He does occasionally do accents, as he did playing Jack Nicholson’s major domo in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed, but he always seems more comfortable in his own voice, as in Sexy Beast, the film in which he played an excruciatingly convincing run-to-seed villain on the Costa del Crime. Winstone speaks without Ts and Hs. He doesn’t bother much with middle Ds either (as in ‘di’n’t’), or Ms, come to that. Written phonetically, ‘something’ becomes ‘sa’i’. It seems to emphasise the anger and violence.

Yet, as he demonstrated in Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth in 1997 and Tim Roth’s The War Zone two years later, there is more to Ray Winstone than anger and violence. Don’t get me wrong, he was angry and violent in those films – very – but he also proved he could bring subtlety to his performances and, most importantly, the camera seemed mesmerised by his moments of unblinking stillness. His natural gift as an actor is that you don’t think, can’t believe, he is acting, which is why journalists are always disappointed to discover that it is an act, sort of, and that he is calm, reflective etc.

On that point, though, perhaps we ought to clear this up once and for all. He doesn’t actually get the red mist, does he? ‘It’s more a matter of being intensely into what I’m doing,’ he says. ‘I do get exhausted. It’s the mental energy. The concentration levels. I could spend two weeks in bed after a film like Nil by Mouth or War Zone. There is one scene [in Nil by Mouth] in which I’m talking about how my father dies and we done that on the first day. The picture and the sound went to the lab and they lost the sound. So we did it again almost on the last day of shooting. It was the best take. I think it needed the energy levels to drop a bit. You think you switch off when you go home but you don’t. It was mentally and physically demanding, that film.’

What about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, his latest movie? ‘That’s just physically demanding,’ he says with a laugh. Go on, Ray, I say. Tell me the plot. I won’t tell anyone else. ‘I can’t. It’s for your own good. I’m contractually obliged to kill anyone I reveal anything about the movie to. It’s a brilliant way of selling a film. Swear everyone to silence. Great salesmanship.’

The last Indiana Jones was 19 years ago. Winstone never imagined he would appear in one. Apart from anything else, it seems so mainstream compared to the dark, art house films he is known for. ‘The script starts off at a gallop and gets quicker, the camera never stops. I’m in it all the way through. The first shot is where I get dragged out of the car and they throw Indy’s hat on the floor and all you see is his shadow putting the hat back on and Harrison’s voice saying ”Russians.” From that moment you know you are in an Indiana Jones movie. Harrison is so fit. Forget the age thing. He’s in his 60s but he moves like he’s 30. He’s like a stunt man. Drives the jeep. And he can hit that spot on the door with his whip.’ Winstone jabs a finger. ‘Ping! He can pull a gun out of your hand with his whip, too. Harrison is a geezer. Pretty straight. Bit introverted. Loves to tell a joke. Doesn’t tell ’em well.’

So how did Winstone unwind after a day’s filming? ‘Radox bath. Vodka and Coke. Indy was fun to make. Didn’t need much unwinding. You’re laughing all day.’

I can imagine Nil by Mouth was a laugh a minute, too. ‘You don’t realise when it’s crowding in on you. War Zone as well. Both about abuse. You have to ask yourself how you feel about what you’re doing. Nil by Mouth I played a wife-beater. OK, that was bad but War Zone I played a man who raped his own daughter. I thought, why am I doing this film? It made me question my own moral parameters. Like going to see a shrink in a way. If you’ve got problems, don’t go and see a shrink, become an actor and act these things out.’

Has he ever seen a shrink? ‘Na. I think a shrink would need to see a shrink after seeing me. I’ve never needed to, I think because I always boxed and got rid of aggression that way.’

I ask him to try a little self-analysis now, ask how well he knows himself. ‘I know I rabbit on. Give it large. Think I’m more important than I am. I also know when I’m starting to feel down, feeling lousy and when I’ve got a brew coming up. I know it. I can do something about that. It follows a pattern. I know how to get out of that. Feeling physically low pre-empts feeling mentally low. So I take more exercise. I don’t need no geezer on a couch telling me that. That’s what my wife’s for. She tells me all that stuff. She’s cheaper too.’

He married Elaine, a northerner, 28 years ago. They have three daughters. The eldest two, Lois and Jaime, are actors. ‘I can be completely candid with my wife but she’s never really asked me about work, and that’s kind of cool. I never tell her about the job I’m doing. I wait for her to see it on the screen because she’s very honest and will tell me what she thinks.’

What! He didn’t tell her about War Zone? He grins. ‘Na, actually I did warn her about that. That was the one exception.’

How did that conversation go? ‘It was fine. The hard conversation was with Laura, the actress playing my daughter. I wanted her to meet my three children, three gals, so she could see I was all right. She’s a great kid, Laura, she looked after me in the end because I weren’t coping. Even when I slept it was still going on in my head. When we got to the final scene I thought f— this, what am I doing here? But it’s a film I’m very proud of now it’s done.’

For all his flippancy about analysing himself, I get the impression that he gives a lot of thought to how he plays a role. He sounds like a method actor, in fact, one who immerses himself. We discuss the Laurence Olivier approach versus the Dustin Hoffman one in The Marathon Man. When Hoffman was doing press-ups before a scene in order to look exhausted, Olivier asked him why he didn’t just act exhausted. ‘I think Sir Laurence should have tried acting as well,’ Winstone says. ‘Because I’ve seen films he’s been diabolical in and Dustin Hoffman has never given a bad performance. Maybe he should have tried doing some press-ups and running round the block himself. Who the f— was he to give a comment like that? It annoys me.’

Excellent. He’s annoyed again. His eyes are bulging behind his black-rimmed glasses. So does he analyse his role in the way Hoffman does? ‘Nine times out of 10 I don’t have a clue how I’m going to play it and I think it ain’t gonna happen. I think, what am I going to do?’ A sort of actor’s block? ‘Yeah, but the fear keeps you on your toes. Keeps you buzzin’. I like to paraphrase. They call me Ray Paraphrase Winstone because I paraphrase everything. Sexy Beast was one of the few I didn’t change a word on because it was so tightly written.’ When I ask if he has ever considered directing, he laughs. ‘One day maybe, when my legs ain’t working properly anymore. Trouble is, I’m impatient. If actors started f—ing around I’d probably lose it, you know.’

I know, I know. But presumably, with his hard-man reputation, actors wouldn’t dream of ‘f—ing around’. ‘Yeah I reckon I could…’ He trails off. ‘Boxing stood me in good stead. Control and discipline and the way you look at someone. In boxing you can give someone a look and they know they can’t beat you. You look right into their soul. It’s not the verbals, it’s the look. Usually the one giving it large, mouthing off, is the one who is scared.’

Winstone grew up watching boxers fight. ‘I used to go to a place called the Cage in Spitalfields market that went on for 15 minutes. Bare-knuckle. Half-way through, they went for a tea break, then came back and finished it. No referee.’

He started sparring with his father. ‘Yeah, one day when we were sparring I saw him getting too close to the armchair and he tripped so I clumped him. He chased me up the stairs and I closed the door and the door knob cut him below the eyes, so then I thought I’m going to die. I put the bed up against the door and then I heard him laughing on the stairs. My dad only hit me once in my life and that was because I was caught cheating at school. He told me I was being hit because I got caught.’

His father is still working, driving a black cab. ‘He’s got a picture of me up in his cab, so I think he’s proud. But dads are the head of the family so maybe it is a bit strange for him having me getting all this attention.’

The house he grew up in, he says, was ‘very loud’. The day would start at high volume and get louder. ‘My dad would get up early and listen to Judy Garland on the Pye record player. It would be loud. There would be rows. Shouting. Everyone had their piece to say. Controlled mayhem. We never bottled anything up. But it was fun. I was told I was a little f—er as a kid. That was not how I remembered it. I thought I was a charming little boy.’

He recalls one day when he and his sister Laura began an argument over Sunday lunch. She threw a knife on the table, it bounced and stuck him in the sternum. With blood trickling down his shirt he dived across the table. ‘I’m strangling her, my dad was strangling me and my mum was strangling my dad. Then me foot went through the French window. It was like a nuthouse. No one sulks in my house. Twenty minutes later we were all sitting down in front of the telly watching The Champ and crying.’

The Champ, of course, is a rather sentimental, father-and-son film about boxing. Encouraged by his father, a keen boxer himself, Ray had joined the Repton Amateur Boxing Club at the age of 12 and, over the next 10 years, had won 80 out of 88 bouts. At welterweight, he was London Schoolboy Champion on three occasions, fighting twice for England. He spent so many hours in the gym as a child, he says, that it put him off gyms for life. ‘I get a nosebleed just thinking about training.’

The Winstones, like so many East End families at that time, lived in the shadow of The Krays, who were also keen boxing fans. ‘Yeah, I was aware of them. My dad knew them very well. I peed all over Ronnie Kray as a baby. He picked me up and I peed on him. He told me the story himself years later.’

The Krays, he now realises, were about the closest he came to glamour in those days because they were always mixing with sportsmen, actors and singers. ‘But no one where I came from actually became an actor because actors were in the category of poofs and poets.’

His career options were limited. Some of his fellow pupils at Edmonton comprehensive school went on to become professional criminals – ‘Well, we didn’t live in Surrey.’ It was his father’s idea that he should try acting, in part because the only CSE Ray had left school with was in drama. When Ray enrolled at the Corona Stage Academy in Hammersmith in 1974, it was his father who dug deep to find the £900-a-term fees. He only lasted a year before being expelled for bursting the headmistress’s tyres (because she didn’t invite him to the Christmas party). ‘I was lucky to go there, though,’ Winstone now says, ‘someone other than my dad might have said, bollocks. I did use to question myself whether acting was a proper job. But I also realised it was the only thing I really liked doing.’

He has been similarly encouraging to his daughters, but he has also tried to instil in them some of the working-class values of which he is still proud. ‘My gels went to state school. We looked at private schools but when we saw the workload and the Ferraris and all that, I thought no, that is not what we want. I’ve nothing against private education. I just think it would be better if everyone got the same education.’ He takes a thoughtful drag. ‘The trouble with the working classes nowadays is that they don’t work. Whereas my family were grafters. We never went without. The house was always spotless. You knew everyone in the street. Front door never locked. There were still bombed houses around us, from the war. We used to play in them.’ He stubs out his cigarette. ‘I remember the first West Indian coming into our street. He had a zoot suit on and the kids used to follow him and touch him for luck. Unbelievable, but true.’

How does he feel about immigration now? ‘It don’t affect me as long as everyone respects everyone else. London has always been cosmopolitan. But I do think the English way is always to say sorry. We get trodden on. I think we apologise too much for what we are. I’m proud to be an Englishman. Now in London you see mosques but if you went to their country you wouldn’t be allowed to build a church, there would be f—ing murders.’

When I ask him to elaborate on what he means by ‘working-class values’ he talks about his belief in the death penalty. ‘Do ’em. Put an injection in them. Child murderers, I mean. People who murder in cold blood, like this guy who murdered five women [Stephen Wright]. I would have no qualms about hurting him. Maybe I could even do it myself. I would like to think I could. But maybe it would f— up the rest of your life.’

Belief in the death penalty is usually associated with being Right wing, I note. Is he? ‘My dad was a royalist who voted Tory. I don’t vote for no cant.’

I can just see that on a Saatchi and Saatchi poster, I say: Don’t vote for no cant. ‘My right to vote is not to f—ing vote,’ he clarifies. ‘I mean, who do I trust?’ He’s getting worked up again, which makes me wonder, again, how much he does act and how much he merely reflects the anger he feels. For an actor, he seems admirably unaffected and unpretentious. That is not to say, though, that he isn’t affected by his performances. On the contrary, they seem to take a lot out of him, leaving him raw and emotional. He doesn’t seem to build up layers, as others actors do, between himself and the roles he plays. I have read somewhere that he has high blood pressure.

Is this still the case? ‘Yeah, but I take tablets for it.’ That’s something associated with a short fuse isn’t it? ‘Is it? Is it? What are you saying?’ He’s laughing again; big, shoulder shaking laughs. ‘I don’t think I have a short fuse any more. I used to have when I was younger.’ His assistant comes into the room and he turns to her and says, ‘Blinding job this, baby. I’m sorted out now. Had my therapy. Not mad any more.’ With this, he swings out of the room, rolling his shoulders. Walking on the balls of his feet. His boxer’s walk.


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.