Robert Altman is a gambling-mad war hero with an eye for the girls. He’s also one of the best – and most independent – American flim-makers around. So why’s he making an English country-house drama? He talks to Nigel Farndale

RUMOURS, and rumours of rumours, float around Robert Altman like winter mist. Fingers of truth poke out occasionally, then shrink away again, the fog closing silently around them.

Can it be true, for example, that as a 19-year-old co-pilot of a B-24 bomber he was shot down over the South Pacific, escaped to the life-raft, then, remembering he’d left his cigarettes behind, jumped over the side, swam back and retrieved them from the plane before it went down? And what about his first wedding day (the 76-year-old film director has been married three times)? He and his fiancée, LaVonne Elmer, were in a car crash; he was unscathed but she had her jaw mangled so badly it had to be wired up and, during the ceremony, she had to mutter her wedding vows through clenched teeth.

There are dozens of similar examples, but the latest rumour to blur Altman’s edges is that when he began directing his 38th film, Gosford Park, in England last year he kept forgetting the names of the actors – and an assistant had to be on permanent standby to whisper reminders in his ear. To be fair, he had never worked in England before, and his all-British cast was only slightly smaller than that for Ben-Hur, but it did include the biggest stars of the British stage – among them, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren and Alan Bates. If it were not for Altman’s famously casual approach to film-making, this hearsay could be easily dismissed. But the truth, or at least the rumour, is that he rarely even bothers to read a script – halfway through filming The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, he still had no idea how it ended.

Robert Altman is tall, hunched and lugubrious looking – domed forehead, hooded eyes, Kentucky colonel beard – and his manner, if not quite tetchy, is distinctly laconic. When I meet him in the Bloomsbury office of a film PR company, there is no time for small talk; he sits down, props his head up on one hand and lazily raises his eyebrows.

Well, to start with, how did Altman cope with all those giant egos on the set of Gosford Park? ‘Y’know,’ he drawls, smoothing out his moustache with long, thin fingers, ‘I didn’t find it a problem. They were all skilled actors, and they all had lead roles. When a film is fully cast I step aside and the actors take over and do the art. It’s like living pigment. I put them on the wall and they crawl around and make the painting. I didn’t have much to do. Storylines don’t interest me unduly. They are just something to hold an audience’s attention. What I am interested in is the detailing around that, the behaviour of the characters. Storylines mean doodly squat to me.’

Still, Gosford Park has a story. It is set in 1932 – a country house, a pheasant shoot, a murder committed after dinner – and the tale is told from the point of view of the servants below stairs. On one level it is about the English class system, an odd choice of subject for one of the most American of American directors. Altman was, after all, the man who made M*A*S*H (1970), the anarchic black comedy which was one of the films that came to define the Vietnam generation in America. Nashville (1975), the film widely acknowledged as Altman’s masterpiece, was about 26 characters searching for the American Dream as they struggled to become Country and Western stars. And after he saw Short Cuts (1993) – based on a series of Raymond Carver stories – Gore Vidal remarked: ‘It looks like the great American novel turned out to be a movie.’

Altman’s Gosford Park is, as the adjective goes, Altmanesque. There is overlapping dialogue, improvisation, an all-star cast working as an ensemble, and a loose enough plotline to enable character’s lives to criss-cross. He worked with two cameras shooting simultaneously, tracking around different sections of the action, and he listened in, seemingly at random, to the miniature microphones he had taped to the actors.

‘My films fail mostly because, if you look at them superficially, you’ll get bored with them or lose interest,’ Altman says, stretching out his fingers and waggling them limply, as if playing an invisible piano. ‘Maybe it was arrogant of me to try and make a film about the English class system, but I’d never been to Nashville before I made that film, and in this one I was the only foreign element. I didn’t take anything for granted. The research was thorough.’ Pause. He absent-mindedly makes a frame with his hands and narrows his cold blue eyes. ‘Besides, we have a class system in America, so the concept wasn’t that remote to me. I think class is like a language. In America we try and disguise it more, but snobbery comes down to the same things: stupidity and parochialism.’

Altman and his two younger sisters were born and raised in Kansas City. Their grandfather had a jewellery business and their father sold insurance. Where does that background place him socially in America? ‘My family was probably upper middle-class. Both sets of grandparents were well-to-do, but that had all gone by the time my parents came along. My father’s business was all about belonging to a country club, playing golf and gin rummy. Meeting people that way.’

His father was also a gambler, womaniser and hard drinker. ‘My parents had a stable marriage in that they married young and stayed together till they died. Yes, my father was a gambler, and I kind of admired him for that. Thought it cool. You win or lose, you take risks. The money doesn’t make any difference.’

Altman was a disruptive pupil at St Peter’s Catholic School, Kansas, and was sent off to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington. After graduating he joined the USAF and saw action against the Japanese just before the War ended. (And yes, the plane story is true.) Upon his return to America he married and moved to LA where he tried his hand as an entrepreneur, inventing a dog-tattooing machine. Around this time he saw two films – David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves – which had such an impact on him that he gave up his job and began writing screenplays. He sold his first, Bodyguard, at the age of 23, but when this success turned out to be a one-off, he became disillusioned, separated from LaVonne (the wedding story is true, too) and moved back to Kansas City to make public information films about road safety. According to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s recent account of Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, Altman contrived to bring what he imagined was a Hollywood way of life to Kansas City. He gambled, drank heavily and ‘during lunch he would repair to the home of hooker for a quick $2 blow-job. Altman had this idea that it was a very Hollywood thing to do.’

In 1954 he met and married his second wife, Lotus Corelli, a newscaster. They had two boys, and the marriage lasted three years before Altman returned to Hollywood alone to make a B-movie, The Delinquents (1957). Alfred Hitchcock happened to see it, liked it and offered Altman the job of directing Alfred Hitchcock Presents for television. He went on to direct other television shows including Bonanza and Whirlybirds – on the set of which, in 1959, he met the actress Kathryn Reed.

‘How are your morals?’ he asked her. ‘A little shaky,’ she replied. They married, had four children and have stayed married for 42 years. What went right? ‘The secret was I met a girl who was smarter than me,’ he says. ‘And she’s always attracted me more than anyone else has.’

Up to a point. In 1975 in an interview with the Washington Post, Altman admitted to having several mistresses (one of them was rumoured to be Faye Dunaway). For her part, Kathryn has said: ‘I think it makes Bob feel exciting to feel unfaithful.’ Not all women share her understanding: after starring in The Player (1992), Greta Scacchi complained that Altman was ‘a manipulative, weak, lecherous old bastard’. Altman himself seems to put his reputation down to his being very comfortable with women. ‘I was first drawn into the film business because of girls,’ he tells me with a shrug. ‘That’s where all the pretty girls were, after the War. Then I found that the movies were an art form as well, one I could really relate to. It was all about me at that stage of my life. I was very self-centred and arrogant.’

By the late 1960s Altman had grown his hair long, taken to wearing beads and kaftans and become an active protester against the Vietnam war. But his interests in peace and love seem to have been more theoretical than practical. He became known for being antagonistic, moving from studio to studio as he fell out with one executive after another. He also got a name for excessive drinking – passing out in restaurants and having to be carried home. One of his assistants had the job of making sure Altman turned up on the set on time and, once there, that he stayed awake. According to George Litto, his agent at the time: ‘The truth of the matter is he [Altman] was a lousy business investment. He took up an awful lot of my time and I didn’t make that much money out of him. But I enjoyed it because he was this bombastic rebel, bomb-thrower, crazy son of a bitch. He was confrontational. He would get in your face and tell you to f- off. He didn’t suck up.’

Altman was 44 when he had his first box-office hit, M*A*S*H, a film he was asked to make only after 15 other directors had turned it down. True to form, he managed to cause friction on the set. His leading actors, Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, were so unnerved by the way Altman ignored them and concentrated on the extras instead that they went to the producer and tried to have him fired during shooting. Carl Gottlieb, who had a small role in the film, noted at the time:

‘I love his work but he can be pretty mean and cruel and manipulative and, contrary to popular belief, he hates actors. He doesn’t allow them a complete performance, he always breaks off.’

After M*A*S*H came the equally brilliant McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. With these and Nashville four years later, Altman’s status as a ‘New Hollywood’ director was confirmed (this loosely defined group included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Sam Peckinpah). But none of the others, not even Coppola, went on to compile such an erratic body of work. Altman’s darkest hour came in 1980 when he made Popeye, his last Hollywood studio-backed film, with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. Don Simpson, president of Paramount, which made the picture, along with Disney, later dismissed Altman with the words: ‘He was a true fraud, such an alcoholic. He was full of gibberish and full of himself, a pompous, pretentious asshole.’

A decade later, Altman made a triumphant comeback with The Player (1992), a satire on Hollywood in which Tim Robbins plays a movie producer on the make. He followed this with Short Cuts (1993), a critical and commercial success, then another flop, Prêt-à-Porter in 1994.

‘I’m not part of the Hollywood establishment,’ Altman says with another shrug. ‘I couldn’t tell you the name, right now, of a person who runs a major studio in Hollywood. I couldn’t tell you their name! Let alone say I knew him. We’re in a different business. They sell shoes and I make gloves. I don’t feel contempt for them, any more than I would, say, for my banker. But they are mean to other people and it seems to be part of the culture in Hollywood – and that I don’t approve of.’

So, is he the opposite of mean? ‘I don’t know. I think so, yes. I hope I have integrity. We all have a point where we sell out, I guess.’ He folds his arms. ‘Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining here. No film-maker, ever, has been better treated than I have. I’ve made, what, 38 films, and miles and miles of television and I’ve never once had a film taken away from me. Never had a film cut on me.’

That’s not quite true, is it? Didn’t Jack Warner once sack him from a film? He gives a wintry smile. ‘He did, he did. That is true. That was on the film Countdown in 1968. He saw it the day after I’d finished shooting. He’d been out of the country and when he came back he called for the dailies [rushes] and said, “This fool has actors talking at the same time!” They wouldn’t let me on the lot the next day. Wouldn’t let me edit the film.’

Doesn’t he ever wish he had played the game more with Hollywood, been less experimental and obstinate, and as a consequence made himself rich beyond the dreams of avarice? He sighs. ‘But I didn’t want to, in any circumstance, compromise. I would rather do something else, paint a wall.’

Certainly, compromise does not come easily to Robert Altman. He once found himself sitting next to a studio executive in the first-class cabin of a transatlantic flight. The executive greeted him cheerfully and held out his hand, but Altman, believing that the man had once cheated him, said, ‘I don’t speak to scumbags.’ And he didn’t – for the whole 11-hour journey. He has never exactly shied away from confrontation – indeed he has gone through his career clocking up enemies and ignoring advice – but his intransigence has won him admirers. It must be grand for him to have the respect of his fellow directors, and grand, too, to have an adjective made from his name?

‘It is a tribute, yes, it is. But I don’t? This stuff doesn’t last long. These little triumphs, where you think somebody got it, it fades as quickly as pain.’

He hasn’t craved approval?

‘Oh I’d love approval but it never happens and I don’t think it makes any difference. My films are very personal. They are like my children. One tends to love one’s least successful the most.’ So what has driven him? ‘Fear of failure, of not being able to work. I’m happy when I’m working. I get bored and frustrated easily when I’m not working. I feel like little Eliza [in Uncle Tom’s Cabin] crossing the ice-floes with dogs snapping at my ass.’

But isn’t it tantamount to failure, still needing to make films, so long past retirement age? ‘I don’t want to get it out of my system because it’s all I know. It would be like saying, “You’ve got six children now, stop fornicating.”‘

Is it, for all his apparent nonchalance, his Parnassian detachment and disdain, that he cares about posterity? ‘I’ll never know what people say about me when I’ve gone, so why fantasise about it? I don’t have a religious dimension. Look at the world today. That is where religion gets you. People crashing planes into tall buildings.’

Is he materialistic? ‘No. I don’t gather fortunes. If I stopped working now, by next year I’d be in big trouble.’ I say I don’t believe him. ‘Sorry, but it’s the truth. I didn’t make a penny on this film [Gosford Park]. The backing was about to collapse and they said, “OK, go ahead, but you can’t have a cut,” and I agreed to it and it’s the best bargain I made in my life. I had the best time. I love this film. It makes me anxious to get on with the next one. What do I need with someone saying, “You’re going to get $800 million a year”? I wouldn’t have any idea what to do with it. Buy a yacht? Corner my personal drug market? I don’t know why all that is desirable. It fucks your children up. In every case.’

Altman once lost $60,000 on an America football bet. Is he addicted to risk? ‘The fun is in walking on the tightrope. Gambling is about losing not winning. It’s about risking security. It’s, like, if I spend all my life making my home comfortable, then I get in a poker game with you, and I think I’ve got you beat, and I bet my home, then you are really up there on the tightrope. Gambling is like jazz. If you’ve got to ask what jazz is, you’re never going to know. It is the opposite of boredom. It’s about anxiety. When do you feel the most alive? When you are in jeopardy of losing your life.’

Is that why he went back to the B-24 for the cigarettes? He laughs. ‘Well, these are important things. I guess I wasn’t assessing the situation very well and, having escaped from something dire, I thought nothing could be worse. Also I’m sure I was playing up to my comrades a bit, too.’

So his lifelong addiction to gambling is a consequence of near-death as a young man? ‘Maybe. I was so young then. I don’t remember how I felt. I don’t think I was reckless particularly. I was frightened a lot. In action, I didn’t have a choice. Your adrenaline shoots up and at the end of the day you feel great because you have survived and you have been in life, in battle. Fear helps you focus. How else can you be happy that you didn’t die unless you were sure you were going to? When the plane went down I reconciled myself to dying and I remember – actually, I don’t know how accurate this really is – you cross a point where you are scared to death. You think, “I’m actually going to lose my life here,” and then a great peace comes over you. I’m quite sure it’s a defence mechanism in the brain, otherwise you would go mad with fear.’

Perhaps this experience also left him with a craving for stimulation, for acknowledgement that he is, as it were, living every moment. This might explain his self-destructiveness, his need always to swim back to the wreckage. Why else does he like, as he claims, to spin himself around to make himself dizzy?

Equally, though, it could be a form of escapism. Is that why he smokes grass? ‘No, I think it’s just that I like changing my temperature. Grass is not addictive. No one has ever died from it. It will be decriminalised everywhere soon.’ He smokes grass, he adds, the same way he used to drink. ‘I’ve never drunk in the morning, apart from the odd brunch on vacation when I started pushing Bloody Marys down. I never drank when I was working, it never affected my work, and the same with grass. I was never an alcoholic because I never lost a day’s work to it, but I just did too much. I stopped drinking because of my heart [it became enlarged]. At the end of the day you want to have a laugh and sit down and smoke a joint, which I do every day of my life.’

Every day of his life? Of such stuff are rumours made. But perhaps it’s true. And it puts me in mind of a recent comment made by Richard E Grant, who has starred in several Altman films, including Gosford Park: ‘I always feel that Altman understands life – watching everyone all the time and being slightly amused.’


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.