A plate of shortbread arrives, and Ronnie Corbett pauses for a second or two as he regards it out of the corner of his eye. He continues talking (or ‘blethering’ as he calls it) about High Hopes, his autobiography, but he’s still distracted by the shortbread, analysing it, surreptitiously passing judgement.
Corbett was born and raised in Edinburgh, the son of a master baker and confectioner, and one legacy of this is an inability to pass cake shops and bakeries without checking the glaze on the pastries or the moisture of the sweetmeats. He pauses again and, as he extends a hand to the plate, the chunky gold ring he is wearing glints in the morning sunlight. He takes a bite and nods. ‘Not bad. Mm. Maybe a bit underfired, as my dad would say. And a bit blond. I don’t mind the dusting of sugar and the crumbly texture, but I have to say it is very ‘short’ shortbread, if you know what I mean.’
The comedian flicks the crumbs off his butter-coloured, double-breasted suit, leans back and shoots his cuffs; his cufflinks are porcelain and have pictures of golfers on them. The ring on his finger, I now see, has a large ‘R’ on it. ‘When I bake bread or make cakes,’ he adds, his voice strong and sonorous, his cadence mildly Scottish, ‘I always think of my dad. I force myself to roll up my sleeves, put my apron on and make sure everything is done properly.’
His father, William Balfour Corbett, was a severe, strong-jawed Presbyterian who would park his car in a garage three miles from home so that he would have to walk there and back for it every day – good discipline. ‘I always wanted to impress him,’ Ronnie Corbett recalls. ‘But he was not the sort of person to ever show he was impressed.’
We are in the panelled library of Greywalls, East Lothian, a house by Lutyens which is now a hotel. Corbett has suggested we meet here because his house, which is next door, is full of guests: his two daughters, both in their early thirties, and his three grandchildren. He has another house in Croydon, Surrey, but the East Lothian one is where he and his wife Anne like to spend their summers – mainly because it overlooks the grand and ancient Muirfield golf course and, beyond that, the Firth of Forth. He’s very close to his daughters, then? ‘Yes, Emma lives in Caterham and Sophie lives in Streatham.’
No, I mean… I see from the grin playing across his asymmetrical features that he knows just what I meant.
Corbett will be 70 in December, but you wouldn’t guess it from his brisk and sprightly manner, his clear hazel eyes or his smooth tanned skin – though his hair is suspiciously dark. He dresses nattily: stripy, open-neck shirt, pink silk handkerchief in breast pocket, cornflower-blue socks. ‘One thing I learned from my Aunt Nell,’ he says, ‘is that because of my height it is really important for me to be immaculately neat and well turned out all the time.’ His aunt had to tailor his school uniform because his parents couldn’t find one small enough to fit. He recently found a group photograph from his time at the James Gillespie School for Boys. He is seated on a chair, fourth from the left in the front row, the only one whose feet do not touch the ground.
His father was 5ft 6in, so young Ronald wasn’t too concerned about his height, but by the age of 14, when the other boys in his school were into long trousers, he became slightly concerned. Aunt Nell paid two guineas for a course on How to Become Taller, which combined positive thinking with stretching exercises, but it didn’t work. Ronald Balfour Corbett grew to 5ft 1.5in, then stopped. He was never bullied at school, but his size did present problems when he started dating. ‘A little man and a taller lady is basically comic, so you have to have a lot of savoir-faire not to let it be so.’ At dancehalls he developed a way of working out a girl’s height before she stood up. ‘I still remember that walk across the floor towards the target, my courage draining away, as I imagined the mutterings of the girls – “He’s coming this way”.’
In 1965 Ronnie Corbett married Anne Hart, a glamorous 5ft 8in singer, and something of a West End star. Was she his first love? ‘There’d been girlfriends before then. Romances. There was a nurse whose name I cannot for the life of me remember. Isn’t that awful! I’ve got a feeling it was Sheila. But I never felt that I was all that… tasty. Not very confident.’ Those were more puritanical times. Did he believe in sex before marriage? ‘We certainly didn’t cohabit in those days as quickly as couples do now. Perhaps on a Friday night, you might stay over somewhere, and go home on Saturday, or even very early on Saturday morning. But I think sex before marriage was with caution and care.’
Presbyterianism was a big influence. ‘We were very serious church-goers, yes. College Street Church. We used to have a long walk there, every morning, 11 o’clock, then back home for lunch, or probably dinner as it was called then, and off again to the service in the evening. It was knocked down years ago, and I no longer attend church, actually.’ His Christian values didn’t prove a handicap in showbusiness. ‘I’ve not encountered much ruthlessness, actually. I was fortunate, really, that things just seemed to proceed in a gentle way. I mean, I was obviously manoeuvring and planning and thinking ahead.’
He certainly was. He had his first taste of the stage at 16, when he played the wicked aunt in a church youth club production of Babes in the Wood – ‘I really put everything into that wicked aunt, never had a female been so villainous.’ After that he would hang around the stage door of the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh and ‘escort’ the stars back to the Caledonia Hotel. ‘I had the autograph book with me as a pretext, and I suppose it was more a case of me tagging along beside them rather than escorting them, but they would usually let me blether away down the Lothian Road. They would listen to me telling them how I was going to be an actor, too. They never brushed me off and sometimes they gave me advice.’
Ambitious though he was, Corbett decided the theatre would have to wait. At 17, on leaving the Royal High School, Edinburgh, he took the Civil Service clerical officers’ exam, largely to stop his mother worrying about his future. He joined the Ministry of Agriculture in Edinburgh and dealt with the rationing of animal foodstuffs, but knew he wouldn’t have to do so for long because his National Service was coming up. His one worry was that he wouldn’t pass his medical because of his height. As it turned out, the RAF doctor rejected him because of the deviated septum in his nose. Corbett pleaded to be allowed to join. ‘I knew perfectly well that if I didn’t get in, people in the street would whisper, “It’s obvious why they didn’t accept him. You know, throw the small ones back in.'”
The doctor eventually relented, and Corbett was commissioned as a pilot officer, though he never actually flew. His CO suggested he wear the full ‘number one dress’ at all times so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a cadet. ‘It didn’t bother me. I suppose I quite liked the man. He probably thought, “I’ll save the boy some embarrassment.” It’s not easy to pick a tiny person and give him authority.’ After National Service, Corbett moved to London and supported himself as a barman in the Buckstone Club. All the actors and directors of the day would use the club, and Corbett would try to catch their eye. Eventually he was noticed and landed a job in a vaudeville show at the Stork Club in Streatham, but he was pelted with crusty Viennese rolls – ‘a cruel fate for a baker’s son’.
From there he graduated to Winston’s nightclub in the West End, where for five years he was Danny La Rue’s straight man. That world of camp theatrical glamour must have been intoxicating after his dour Scottish upbringing. ‘Yes it was. The public absolutely adored Dan. He looked fabulous as a man, and even more fabulous as a woman… The camp thing is very seductive. Naturally a lot of people came to see the shows who, you know, felt simpatico to him. I suppose he was a torchbearer, really, for the acceptability of being honestly, outwardly gay.’ Did Corbett identify with the camp world to the extent of questioning his own heterosexuality? ‘Er, no, but I’ve always been very easy with the gay world, deeply comfortable. I was brought up with it and I completely understand it, and it is not in any way suspicious or objectionable to me. I mean, one was brought up really feeling all the cleverest people in the business are gay. One thinks of Novello and Rattigan and Coward. And after working with Dan I felt part of their little corner.’
At this point in his career, Corbett says, he eradicated his Scottish accent, to avoid being typecast as the ‘the wee one in the kilt’. He didn’t want to be patronised, he says. He wanted to be suave. ‘I obviously know I am short, but I’ve always been the last person to be aware of it, and my style of work is like that: a short man acting and performing like somebody who’s a great deal taller. I don’t feel small. But yes, I was patronised. In those days, if you were little, you had to be a comedian like Norman Wisdom or Charlie Drake. Someone who was always being hit on the head or falling over. A sort of sizeism still exists in casting today. Even the smartest, most inventive directors still perceive people in terms of their size. If I say, “I rather fancy playing that part Nigel Havers plays,” there is no way that directors would see me playing it. They wouldn’t cast me as a viscount, for instance, even though there are plenty of short viscounts.’
To overcome prejudice, Ronnie Corbett has had to be more driven than other comic actors. His height might even have given him a competitive advantage. If he could live his life again, would he want to come back as a taller person? He frowns, takes a sip of coffee and looks away. ‘It may sound odd, but I don’t think I would want to be taller. Actually. I think it’s been the cornerstone, really, of what I’ve done. It has formed my personality. I may have changed the way I speak but I never became another person. I just slowly worked away at becoming for others the person I always saw myself as being.’
While working at Winston’s, Corbett made a pact with himself that if he hadn’t made it as a big-time entertainer by the age of 36 he would pack it in and ‘go into another part of the business, be an agent or manager or something’. By happy coincidence, in 1966 he was invited to join The Frost Report, which proved a lucky break, as his co-stars were John Cleese and Ronnie Barker, and the team also included future members of Monty Python. He cherishes the memory, but recalls a clash of cultures. The Ronnies had both spent 17 years learning how to be professional entertainers, always memorising their lines and arriving on time for rehearsals. The embryoic Pythons, fresh from Oxbridge, were very blasé.
‘They all came from privileged backgrounds,’ Corbett remembers. ‘John Cleese would always turn up late and unshaven in a taxi, looking flustered because he hadn’t learnt his lines. Graham Chapman and the others would sit around talking about how they were giving television a go for a couple of years before going back to medicine or law. They’d stumbled on entertainment as a by-product of their education, so it was a bit of a hobby, a bit of a plaything. I suppose Ronnie B and I were a bit resentful, but it did give us a sense of solidarity. Our shared attitudes made us very comfortable together.’
The Two Ronnies ran from 1971 to 1987, won an audience of 17 million (19 million for the Christmas specials) and became a national institution; the two comedians were appointed OBE in 1978. The format of the show was unvarying. It opened with them sitting side by side reading spoof news items (‘First, traffic news. A juggernaut carrying treacle has overturned on the M4. Drivers are asked to stick to the inside lane’). There were sketches, and a slot in which Ronnie Corbett, wearing his Lyle & Scott cardie, would sit in an old armchair and tell a shaggy-dog story. There was lots of cross dressing and ribald seaside humour and the show would always end with a musical number and the ritual exchange: ‘So it’s goodnight from me’, ‘And it’s goodnight from him’, ‘Goodnight’.
Barker was the dominant partner, not least because he wrote most of the shows, with the exception of Corbett’s rambling monologue (which was written by Spike Mullins). Corbett was the placid one who avoided confrontation. Why did he never try writing his own material? ‘I can fiddle about with things when I’m working, then come off and write them down. But I only ever want to perform other people’s material, really. I wouldn’t know how to start writing, and I suppose I’ve had a calmer life because of it.’
When The Two Ronnies were lampooned by Not the Nine O’Clock News, they knew the writing was on the wall. Ronnie Barker announced his retirement and went off to run an antique shop. Corbett still has dinner with him every so often, but the two were never that close. ‘We were friendly, but not friendly in the way that Eric [Morecambe] and Ernie [Wise] were,’ Corbett recalls. ‘Stress and high blood pressure had a lot to do with Ronnie B’s decision to retire. There’d been other comedians around who’d died younger than they should have done, like Tommy Cooper.’
Sorry, a sitcom in which Ronnie Corbett had starred for seven years, was axed by the BBC at the same time as The Two Ronnies came to an end. Corbett felt ‘a bit solitary for a while – prematurely pruned’. Everyone assumed that he would retire, too, and join his friends Tarbie and Brucie on the pro-celebrity golf circuit. Instead he hosted Small Talk, a dire programme on which children supplied 30 minutes of undiluted precocity. He has since redeemed himself slightly with appearances on The Ben Elton Show and a role in Fierce Creatures, John Cleese’s ill-fated follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda. But mostly the twilight years of his career have been devoted to after-dinner speaking, his one-man cabaret show, and pantomime.
He hasn’t given up hope that he will yet be cast in a serious drama. ‘Now that I no longer do The Two Ronnies, directors have forgotten that I’ve played a cockney or a viscount or a lord chancellor quite effectively in short episodes on the television. They don’t see that I’m back. Back again, fighting a little man’s battle to play a variety of parts.’
Ronnie Corbett’s father died of a heart attack at the age of 75, while playing a round of golf. His mother died in 1991 after suffering from Alzheimer’s. Now that Corbett is approaching 70, does he find himself brooding upon his mortality, wondering if he will die in the same manner his parents did? ‘Well I’m still quite agile, touch wood. I don’t have hip problems, heart problems, or anything like that. I’ll probably have a prostate problem first.’ He’s worked it all out, then? ‘Worked it out, yes,’ he chuckles. ‘I have no fear of getting old, or fear of going, really. My biggest worry is losing my mind, or my wife losing her mind. You know, Alzheimer’s or dysphasia. She can’t stop herself worrying about everything – everybody and everything. She’s always been like that. She gave up her career to bring up our daughters. Very protective. Since Andrew died.’
Andrew was their first child, born in 1966. ‘He died from a serious heart defect when he was six weeks old. I still think about him a lot. When you consider he would have been 34 now. You can’t believe how this tiny little soul really just didn’t survive. Now, of course, I suppose they might have done something about it, but the heart, the surgeon told me, was the size of a fingernail. We brought him home for a day, struggling, his colour changing, and we had to take him back to St George’s. It was really just… terrible. Terrible. ‘I still feel the odd tear coming to my eye. The same happens when I talk about Tom, my 11-year-old grandson. He’s dyslexic, bless his little soul… I do get emotional, and cry at odd times. Yet I have got a bit of a steely interior. I blow hot and cold, I think that’s it. I have a short temper. Quick to turn and quick to cry. I say it, I get it over and that’s it. All forgotten.’
It’s true. He had a spectacular wobbly recently when he refused to get in the brand new Renault Espace that GMTV had laid on to take him home after an appearance on the Lorraine Kelly day-time show, because it wasn’t a limo (one was provided). Ronnie Corbett can be admirably self-deprecating, jovial and self-aware, but he is also, it seems, fundamentally insecure. It is possible that he suffers from an inferiority complex which he disguises with comic bravado. He has a tendency to build himself up. ‘Yes,’ he will say. ‘I did two very very successful pantomimes around that time. Stanley Baxter and I played the Ugly Sisters’ or, ‘Actually, though I say so myself, I am a skilful mingler.’
The feeling of inferiority is partly social, you suspect. ‘No one ever said anything,’ he muses, ‘but there might be a feeling in the family that my mum’s side was just a little more genteel than my dad… I think I am class-conscious in the sense of liking things to be classy and elegant, as in high quality. I suppose I’ve always been interested in refinement. When I met Princess Margaret early in my career I felt I should raise my game a little.’ She asked how he had sprained his ankle. He didn’t want to say he had fallen going to the outside lavatory at his house in New Cross, so he said he had fallen off a horse. His friend Simon Parker-Bowles (former brother-in-law to Camilla), has acted as his social tutor, he says. ‘He’s a very kindly, very gracious person. Not at all snobby and I suppose he has given me a confidence boost.’
Until recently Corbett drove a Rolls-Royce, until ‘I decided it was nice to drive but no longer nice to be seen in.’ It is nearly lunchtime, dinnertime as it used to be called. ‘Excuse me,’ Corbett says rising from his chair. ‘I must go for a pee.’ That’ll be the start of his prostate problem. He laughs. ‘The prostate problem, yes.’
We meet again in the walled garden, designed by Jekyll. We can smell the sea from here and just about hear the pock of a golfball being struck on the 13th hole. Seagulls are crying overhead, and there are cabbage whites fluttering around the lavender borders. As we contemplate the distant Lammermuir Hills, I ask Ronnie Corbett if he still feels Scottish. He does, he says, in the way that Sean Connery, his old friend and Edinburgh contemporary (he used to date Corbett’s cousins), does. Is he involved in Scottish politics, as Connery is? ‘No, no, I’m not a Nationalist, I don’t really see the point of spending millions and millions… on a new…’
Did he attend the opening of the Scottish Parliament? Corbett squares his shoulder and shakes his head at the memory. ‘No I didn’t. I was a bit miffed that I wasn’t invited, actually. Bit put out… I’m not deeply liked by Scottish people in the way that Sean is.’ The pathos is unbearable. We part company with a hearty handshake and Ronnie Corbett strides off, barrel-chested, leaving me feeling that I’ve just said goodbye to a proud and dignified man who is still fighting, as he has always had to, a little man’s battle.


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.