How would he like to die? What’s happening with The Men From The Pru? And why is he wearing pyjamas in a graveyard? Our greatest comedy misery-guts reveals all

As well as being a protection from the unsettling glare of his fame, the Giorgio Armani sunglasses Ricky Gervais wears are a concession, a hint at his status as the British comedian, writer and director who went to America and came back with an armful of Emmys, Golden Globes and Hollywood contracts. But at least he is not wearing them indoors. We are wandering through a dappled churchyard not far from his house (and his office) in Hampstead, and the sun is shining.

Gervais couldn’t be accused of dressing like a star, though. Tramp would be closer to the mark – a 47-year-old tramp who hasn’t shaved for days and is wearing trainers, a cord coat and what looks like a pair of the pyjamas they give you when you fly long haul in first class.

At the mention of these I get to hear the manic Gervais laugh that is familiar to fans of his podcasts. ‘They are pyjamas! But I got them from M&S. I do wear the ones with the v-neck that you get on airlines. I walk around the house in them looking like William Shatner as he is now, not how he was in Star Trek. I always choose what to wear based on how soft and comfortable the clothes are. There’s no point killing yourself.’

When we come to a bench which has a slat missing on one side, Gervais half-heartedly offers me the good side, but having just listened to him explain how important comfort is to him, I insist on taking the bad. He quickly agrees, on condition that I mention that he offered.

We sit down and contemplate the gravestones, some gothic, some lichen covered, some at strange angles, thanks to subsidence. Shelley would have approved. He was never far from a graveyard. Nothing he liked better than a memento mori.

On the subject of which, there is a photograph of Gervais taken years ago when he was the epicene singer in a new romantic band. Does he contemplate that photograph now and weep for his lost youth? ‘No, but whenever it is brought out I do groan, not because I’m embarrassed at how I looked then but about how I look now. I had great cheekbones then. I removed all the mirrors from my house in about 1990.’

Gervais likes this graveyard, but not out of religious sentiment. Indeed he is a patron of the National Secular Society. ‘I feel angry that I even have to say I am atheist. The alternative is so ludicrous to me. I don’t want to dignify the idea of religion by saying that. The burden of proof should be on their side, not mine. I feel like saying to Richard Dawkins: “Don’t bother. Not worth it.” I know there is no God more than I know anything else in this world.’

Gervais became an atheist at the age of eight when Bob, his older brother by 11 years, asked him why he believed in God. ‘My mother went “Bob!” and that was it. I knew she was hiding something and he was telling the truth. My tool to understanding throughout my life has been non-verbal communication, observing the minutia of human behaviour. It’s in my acting and my writing and that was where it began.’

I ask if he is familiar with an Arthur Miller quote about mankind’s craving for immortality – that it is as futile as scratching your name on a cube of ice on a hot July afternoon. ‘No, but I like that. I would like The Office to be still considered good in 20 years’ time, but after I’m dead I don’t care. I don’t care what it says on my gravestone.’

How will the papers report his death, does he suppose? ‘It depends how I die. I might have won an Oscar and found the cure for Aids but if I die by slipping and landing on a giant spike, the headline will be “Man Dies From Spike Up A—.”‘ He’s laughing again now, as am I. ‘The awful thing will be the funeral when people who haven’t read the papers ask how I died and when they are told they will get the giggles.’

Gervais met his partner, Jane Fallon, when they were at University College, London. They decided not to have children but to concentrate on their careers instead (she is a television producer and a novelist).

I ask what he makes of the idea that there is a form of immortality in passing on your DNA. ‘That’s just scratching your name in a cube of ice in a very cold country,’ he says. ‘It’s not real immortality. There are loads of reasons why people have children. You think it will be nice and good and worth the hassle. But in human terms, procreation hasn’t been about propagating the species for years. We’re safe. The human race is good.

‘So I don’t think the genetic legacy idea works. I don’t think people on their deathbeds go: “At least half my DNA is still walking around.” They say: “Can you remove this spike from my a—, please. Say it went through my head and it happened while I was saving a child from a burning building. And it wasn’t even my child”.’

Gervais stretches out on the bench. There is a chinking sound of coins falling on the ground. ‘My money has fallen out! Now you’re going to see me scrabbling around in an undignified way in case it’s a pound. If it’s 20p I’ll leave it. That’s the problem with wearing pyjamas.’ He gives up looking. ‘Karl says you’re alright, by the way. That’s high praise from him. That’s like getting six out of 10 from a teacher who never normally gives more than three.’

Karl is Karl Pilkington and two and a half years ago I became the first journalist in the world to interview him. I don’t imagine he has done many interviews since because he is a man completely lacking in ambition and, as Gervais regularly points out, he is ‘f—ing lazy’. Pilkington acts as a deadpan muse to Gervais and his writing partner Steve Merchant. The three do podcasts together, the most listened to podcasts in podcast history, and lately they have been bringing out a series of downloadable audiobooks, too, called The Ricky Gervais Guide to…

So far they have done guides to the arts, medicine, natural history and philosophy, clocking up around three million sales per episode. The latest, available from next week, is The Ricky Gervais Guide to… The English. Later, when I email Karl to tell him how it went with Gervais, he replies: ‘People always say he’s nice but that’s cos he doesn’t try squeezing your head.’

‘Me and Steve treat Karl like an experiment,’ he says now. ‘We’re a couple of chancers going around 19th-century America with a thing in a cage.’

For all the abuse Gervais directs at Pilkington, he loves him really and the two talk on the phone several times a day. In fact, if you want to know the real Ricky Gervais you could do worse than see him through the strange prism of Karl Pilkington. ‘Karl is a lovely man with unexpected talents such as dancing, editing and illustrating. He’s an idiot savant who will make you see a subject in a way you have never seen it before. He’s a friend first and foremost, but, well I know how to work him, get the best out of him. He’s the funniest bloke I know, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.’

On the podcasts, Pilkington will say something so unexpected Gervais will lose his breath as he giggles like a hyena and says: ‘I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!’ Pilkington, he reckons, inhabits a cartoon world. ‘He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. Completely unpretentious. Pretension is a concept that doesn’t exist in his world. He’s not comfortable when things go right. It’s like he feels guilty about the audio books doing so well because he doesn’t consider them a proper job. He goes down to Kent and does painting and decorating as well because that feels more like real work. He feels guilty about how easy the podcasts are. I’ve gone through the same thing, to an extent.’

There is nothing Pilkington wants, he adds. ‘And I’m a bit like that. I didn’t want fame and neither does he. And we are both creatures of habit. The only difference between us is formal education. I’m not ambitious in the sense that I will be prepared to compromise to get an extra million viewers. It’s like if they say there is a red carpet event I should attend because it will help the film I refuse to go. They are saying the wrong thing to me. They are always saying the wrong thing.’

Who ‘they’ are is not clear but you suspect it is uncreative people, administrators, conformists. Gervais doesn’t seem to hang out with other celebrities much. He prefers staying in watching television to going out. But Pilkington reckons there is more to it than that. He doesn’t use the word ‘misanthrope’, but that is what he means. He points to the fact that Gervais can’t bear hearing people chewing, for example. ‘I don’t know whether it’s a phobia or a neurosis,’ Gervais now says, ‘but it’s often justified. The sound of traffic, mating geese, thunderstorms, no problem. But if there is someone next door with their telly on too loud I want to go around and kill them.’

As for his other flaws, Gervais admits he has the attention span of a toddler and can be grumpy, too. ‘When it comes to creativity I’m ready for war. I’ll square up if someone says they have “notes” on something I’ve written. Steve will say: “Calm down, Rick, calm down.” He’s a very calm person. When Steve was 23 he was 52.’

They met in 1997 when Gervais was presenting a radio show on the music station Xfm. He needed an assistant and hired Merchant, a man 13 years younger than him, and a foot taller. Gervais would make Merchant laugh with a character he called Seedy Boss. One day Merchant filmed him for fun and, after that, they began writing a comedy around the character.

The BBC commissioned a pilot and, in 2001, it broadcast the first episode of The Office, with Seedy Boss now called David Brent. A new genre was born, the comedy of embarrassment, and… we know the rest. The Office has now been shown in 70 countries worldwide and has been remade eight times, the latest being the Israeli version. India is also planning a version and Gervais and Merchant think they might be hands on with that one, executive producing it as they did for the US version.

Extras, their follow up to The Office, explored the world of a bit-part actor, Andy Millman. It managed to be just as funny and even more moving, yet could not have been more different in approach – a testament to their confidence as writers. Now they are working on a film together, set in Seventies Reading and involving the aspirational yet ultimately frustrated lives of men working in insurance, one of whom will be played by Ralph Fiennes. It was to have been called The Men From the Pru but the real men from the Pru read the script and decided that, er, on balance they didn’t want their company name used in the title. Gervais now wants to call it Cemetery Junction after a place in Reading, but Merchant has doubts, saying he thinks it sounds too depressing.

Meanwhile, Gervais has just finished This Side of the Truth, a film he has written, directed and starred in, and which is due for release in September. The cast list reads like a Who’s Who of US comedy talent: Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Guest… Such is his control freakery he has the final edit – the only other directors who get away with this are Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino – and the film will not be tested on audiences.

Although he starred in last autumn’s box office hit Ghost Town, Gervais did not consider that film ‘his baby’ because someone else wrote it, albeit with Gervais in mind. ‘This one is definitely my baby,’ he says. ‘It’s set in a world where humans haven’t evolved the gene for lying. I play a loser, and when I discover I can lie it becomes like a superpower.’

A couple walk past and do a double take when they see Gervais. ‘Round here people tend not to bother me,’ he says. ‘When I’m in the sticks, it’s a bit hairier. People behave as if an alien has landed. First time people started looking at me I didn’t know what they were looking at, then I remembered, “Oh yeah, I’m on the telly.”

‘The first time I was asked for my autograph I said: “Really?” and they looked hurt, like I had insulted them. Now I’m more polite. But my dread is missing a train because someone wants an autograph and I don’t want them to think I am being rude. I can’t even send my soup back now. Before I would have sent it back for being too cold but now I have to be gracious. It’s exhausting.’ He grins his fangy grin to show he’s joking. ‘It’s like I had to offer you the nice seat. And now I have to pretend that I don’t mind I’ve lost that pound coin that might only be 20p. I’m going to come back after you’ve gone and have a proper look for it.’

What do people normally shout when they see him then? ‘Well I don’t have a catchphrase so what they tend to do is the David Brent robot dance instead. What I don’t like is when people take sly pictures without asking. It’s just a matter of politeness. I don’t mind if they ask.’

What about if they were to take a photograph of him when he was out jogging? ‘I don’t care. What are they going to say? That I look fat and sweaty? I’m a comedian running. I’m not a model. What bothers me is intrusion. It would give me the creeps if someone went through my rubbish, and actually my shutters are always down to avoid long lenses. I live in a giant panic room.’

If he met his 20-year-old self right now, would he find him gauche and embarrassing? ‘I would. He was cocky. I’ve got less cocky as I’ve got older. But that 20-year-old me was only cocky because he found everything too easy. He felt sorry for kids who weren’t as clever as him. He played his cleverness down. Up until about 25, I prided myself on getting the best mark possible without trying.’

Being seen not to try, of course, gets to the heart of Englishness. So does the class system. Gervais grew up on a council estate in Reading. His father was a labourer. ‘I think class is more significant than race or sex,’ he says. ‘To this day, in a room full of overprivileged Oxbridge graduates I feel them giving me a sideways look.’

Meaning? ‘Perhaps I’m being paranoid but I do feel that they are saying: “We know… We know that eventually you are going to let yourself down. Eventually you are going to make a faux pas at this dinner party.e_SDRq’ That’s awful. ‘I don’t care. I quite like it because I’m not going to make the faux pas at this dinner party unless I mean to – you know, using the wrong knife deliberately.’

This paranoia surprises me because I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone with an ego as healthy as his – anyone less insecure, I mean. But then perhaps there is a pattern here. When I interviewed Stephen Merchant a couple of years ago he told me: ‘Ricky has an incredible memory and a natural intelligence but is happy for people to think he is an oik from Reading.’ He also said that Gervais didn’t realise his background was working class until he went to UCL to read philosophy.

‘That’s true,’ Gervais now says. ‘I don’t think we even had a middle-class teacher at my school. I could read as well as I can now at three. I lost that art at the age of four. Got bored. I had better things to do. At the age of five I would be outside all the time turning over leaves to find a stag beetle.’

Did his father advise him not to become a labourer? ‘No, I always knew I would move away from home at 18 and go to university and everything would be all right. Blind optimism.’ A Candide figure, perhaps. But it was Mike Leigh, not Voltaire, who was the biggest influence on his formative years. ‘I remember seeing Abigail’s Party when I was 14. I loved it but hated it at the same time, because the mockery of working class aspiration was a mockery of my family. I’m a snob when it matters. Snobbery can be a shot at excellence. But if someone mocks people for breaches in etiquette, I hate that.’

I ask Gervais about his relationship with Merchant, who, though younger, seems to be the more mature of the two, or at least the less frivolous. ‘It’s us against the world. You have to be complete fascists when it comes to art. There is no room for democracy. We don’t want anyone else’s opinion. I don’t know about Steve but I do this for the fun, for the creative process, not to see my fat face on the telly. It’s about bringing something into the world. All my DNA is in the work that I’ve done.’ He stops. Shakes his head. Looks worried. ‘I ended on a pretentious note. I’d been doing well until then. F—ing hell. I also said we ended and that sounds rude, like I’m cutting the interview off… So now I’m worried about two things. I’ve been pretentious and I’ve been rude. F—! And now I’ve sworn again.’


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.