In 2002 Sheila Hancock was left heartbroken by the death of her beloved husband, John Thaw. Eight years on and enjoying a new lease of life, she discusses sports cars, swearing on live TV and why she’s saying ‘yes’ to everything

The Sheila Hancock who wrote what amounted to a ‘textbook on grief’ after her husband John Thaw died of cancer in 2002, seems only distantly related to the woman who is sitting opposite me on a sofa – her sofa – today. She looks mentally and physically strong, though that may be to do with her erect posture and those sharp, bird-of-prey features of hers.

In The Two of Us, the first of two best-selling volumes of memoir, she described her depression after her husband’s death. ‘He was my whole life.’ Everything was in reference to him. ‘Without him I don’t exist.’

Thousands of readers wrote to tell her how moving they found the book and how they could relate to her predicament. Now she has moved on, literally. Her new house overlooks the Thames at Hammersmith. She sold her old one in Wiltshire because it had too many memories of Thaw. Also, she realised that the lowing of cows was depressing her and that she needed the hum of the city, the traffic, the planes, the boats.

‘On Boat Race day, mine is the popular house,’ she says, gesturing towards her balcony. ‘This is the corner where they all capsize.’ The early 20th-century paintings along one wall have also been bought recently. ‘They were a present to myself,’ she says, ‘courtesy of Sister Act.’ Also, parked outside is a new Jaguar sports car. Not the sort of car you associate with a 77-year-old grieving widow, not one with seven grandchildren anyway.

Part of her rehabilitation has been saying ‘yes’ to things, she says, such as the chancellorship of Portsmouth University and the above-mentioned Sister Act, the West End musical in which she is currently starring as Mother Superior, the one for which she was recently nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award (she didn’t mind not winning, having already won one for Cabaret when she was a tender 73).

And over the winter she was filming a documentary about the suffragettes, another thing she said ‘yes’ to. ‘It was so cold,’ she recalls. ‘I couldn’t believe this pinched old face I saw on the screen.’ Oh, and she is about to fly to China for another filming project.

‘Normally people my age are content to put their feet up and watch the telly, wear Crimplene trousers and baggy jumpers. But I need challenges. I’d seize up if I didn’t do things.’ No afternoon naps then? ‘Sometimes I look with envy at women who have naps, but it’s not right for me yet. There will come a time. I always get a shock when people come round who have been at school with me and I see what I should look like.’

Another, perhaps more surprising, thing she said yes to was the frothy and camp Over the Rainbow, a search for a ‘Dorothy’ to star in a West End version of The Wizard of Oz, hosted by Graham Norton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Hancock was a judge on the show and, with her always polite but sometimes arch remarks, she proved a hit with critics and audiences alike, even when she had a dig at them. ‘Don’t get carried away by the crowd,’ she told one young hopeful. ‘Every time you sing loudly they applaud.’

‘It was the highest camp in the world,’ she says now. ‘When the girls went off in that moon! Hysterical! I’m told I’ve become a gay icon, which I find flattering. I put it down to having this image as a strong and bossy woman.’

Still, it seemed an unlikely departure for her, given how serious-minded she could be in her memoirs, and given that for most of her career she was performing Shakespeare and Chekhov at the RSC and the National. Indeed we soon find ourselves on the subject of politics. Though she has always been Left-wing, she says, she likes the idea of the coalition Government.

‘I think it’s because I’m a Quaker. Everything at Quaker meetings is done through discussion, and I like that. We don’t vote. Everybody comes to a compromise or an agreement. I joined the Society about 20 years ago. I was an attender before that. No one is in charge. No rules, well, only loose ones and no hierarchy. Total equality. Living simple lives. Good people.’

Is she a good person? Has she led a good life? ‘Me? Oh no. Not like them. As far as I know I haven’t done anything really, really bad. But I find it hard to get rid of material things. I mean, my car! That is so not Quaker. I am trying to pare right down. Before I die I want to get shot of everything.’ Perhaps she could put it towards the national debt.

‘The recession is going to hit us all hugely and I’ve already lost quite a lot of money. It doesn’t alarm me because as a I child I lived frugally and could do so again. John was the same. When I was in rep I always lived in digs. For years actors never had mortgages, you see, because we didn’t have the money to put down. We were all rogues and vagabonds so we didn’t have to worry about what our peers thought. And I still always get clothes second-hand, sometimes after I’ve worn them on telly. I don’t mind investing in things like paintings because they can be sold. I seldom buy things for pleasure.’

She still has the house she and her husband bought in France, but she wanted to move from her old house in Wiltshire because it was full of memories of Thaw. Were they unhappy memories?

‘Our marriage wasn’t always plain sailing, but it wasn’t that. It’s more that I’m a mover on. I’ve done that all my life. When you have children your life changes.

‘Life is about change. Someone dies; you have a time of grieving and then you have to get back to your own life. I have sad memories all the time driving around London, but also happy memories that leave you a little sad because the person they were about is not there to share them with, be it my first husband Alex, or my mother, or John. I sometimes find myself in tears.

But I have a life to continue. I often say to people who write to me: you must fill your day, visit museums and galleries, take evening classes.’ Write a memoir? ‘Well, yes, but I suppose that’s not for everyone. When I was writing I thought people would be interested in our lives as actors. What I didn’t get was that the grief would be what readers related to.’

Her unflinching, cold-eyed honesty took a lot of readers by surprise. She left nothing out, not even the afternoon shortly before her husband’s death when they had sex in a Gloucestershire field, and she accidentally squashed his chemotherapy tube. ‘I didn’t want to censor it and make it nice, so I went back to my diary and quoted from that. I had gone through a dreadful period of grieving, when I was almost clinically depressed and I felt bleugh – horrid, horrid, horrid – and I thought “I don’t want to go on”.

‘Gradually, I went travelling and now my life couldn’t be fuller.’ Does she in some way feel liberated by being on her own? ‘Yes, there is an element of that. You don’t have anyone else to feel responsible for. I would have to turn work down because John was away and I had to look after the children. Now I can be utterly selfish. I live a totally selfish life.’ Has it made her less sentimental? I only ask because of the way she turned that cold eye of hers on to the budding Dorothys on BBC TV.

‘They were choosing to go in the profession and they had to find out whether they could survive the ordeal. The talent is important but it is just as important to have resilience, because you are choosing a career that is all about criticism, from brutal casting directors to brutal critics in the press. I try to be constructive. There was one girl who kept turning away from the camera all the time. It’s the Nick Clegg thing about looking into the lens.

‘The following week she did it properly and she was much better. But you have to remember it’s Saturday night entertainment. It’s not a deeply intellectual show.’ I ask if she developed any coping mechanisms for the criticism. ‘Yes, I don’t read reviews, because they will put you off your stride. Even if they are good. It can make you self-conscious. Anyway, you always know if they have been good, bad or indifferent because of the atmosphere the next day.’

Though she doesn’t read reviews, she did always listen to her husband’s advice. ‘He was my support because I trusted him implicitly. It was mutual, too. He would listen to my analysis about his work. I knew more about theatre and he knew more about television. Technically, as a television actor, he was brilliant. Such honesty. He was a good critic of work on screen. I would always be depressed if he didn’t think something I had done was good.’

And she has known what the whip of theatre criticism feels like. When, in 1965, she opened on Broadway in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, the New York Times declared: ‘Throw this cesspit back into the Atlantic.’ The American audiences came around, and she was eventually nominated for a Tony for that role.

She has fond memories of that time. ‘Orton was wonderful. I adored him. So decadent. So naughty. A naughty boy. My mother came out to New York with my young child and would make Orton a Sunday lunch. If she had only known what he was up to. But I suppose she wouldn’t have understood it, that gay world.’

Hancock herself was more hardened to camp humour, not least because one of her earliest West End roles after graduating from Rada had been with Kenneth Williams in One Over the Eight. That was in 1961. ‘Back then, homosexuality was against the law. I had lots of gay friends and it was a nightmare for them, one of them even committed suicide.

‘Kenneth was made to feel so ashamed. Reading his diaries, it was appalling how he suffered. But gay men felt safe in my profession because we didn’t give a damn. Now most people are tolerant. I think David Cameron is genuinely ashamed of the past homophobia of the Tory party.’

Hancock went on to appear with Williams in Carry on Cleo in 1964. ‘Such a low budget but great fun. The filming was so quick. Everything would be done on the first take. That was tricky for me because I was having to breastfeed between takes.’ Did that make her an early feminist, the working mother? ‘Well, I certainly didn’t play the little wifey at home. But later, when I was married to John, I did lose some of my own identity. And when he died I did find I was less confident in social situations.’

She says she is still learning how to enter a room on her own, because throughout her life she always had a man to hold her hand. In Just Me, her second memoir, she poignantly described her first holidays on her own: the embarrassment of learning to eat alone in a restaurant, the invisibility of the single woman to a professional waiter.

‘A big part of you dies with your husband,’ she says. ‘I try not to think about what life would have been like if John had still been alive. Not necessarily better, because I have managed to make a life that is exciting. But I do want to show him the book, show him how well it did. He would have been proud of himself. I asked him to write his life story when he was dying – though he didn’t know he was at the time – and he said: “No one will be interested in my life”, and I said: “Oh, come on”. The only reason I felt I had permission to write that book about him after he died was that he said: “OK kid, I’ll think about it.”’

Thaw, she says, had no idea how remarkable it was to have had such a distinguished career after such an unpromising start in life. ‘It was quite a journey. He grew up in poverty and went on to break the mould in television, first with The Sweeney then with Morse, but he had no idea how good he was. He would say: “Yeah but it’s only telly. I haven’t played Lear.”’

Her memoir is frank about Thaw and his alcoholism. Did she agonise about shedding so much light on their private world? ‘Yes I did. But I figured so many people knew about it that if I didn’t write about it then people would think the book dishonest. I checked with the girls first, our daughters, and they actually thought I’d been too soft on him!’ Thaw and Hancock had a daughter each when they met and a third together.

‘What was remarkable was that he beat the drinking in the last years of his life. He hadn’t realised that the depression he suffered was to do with his drinking.’ I ask whether, when she was writing the book, she felt angry with him once more for his behaviour? ‘Not really. I did feel anger at the time, but then I wasn’t easy to live with either. My father was a drinker and both my husbands were drinkers.’ Her father was a publican and her first husband, Alec Ross, was an actor.

They married in 1954 and he died of cancer in 1971. Two years later, she married Thaw. ‘I think women like me are often drawn to men like that. And I had to change my ways before John could change his. Sometimes you support people in their addiction and it was only when I went to Al-Anon (a charity that supports the families of alcoholics) that I could see my part in it. With our endless, all-night talks, I was encouraging him. I had to learn to back off and let him deal with his own addiction rather than off loading it on me.’

Thaw sounds like a force of nature, wildly romantic and unpredictable. She must miss the chaos almost as much as him? ‘That kind of dramatic up and down you do get used to, yes. But I’m constantly telling girls, don’t sneer at boring. Life with a boring man can be beautiful and lovely. But I know there is something in me that needs some kind of volatility, not knowing what’s around the corner.’

What was around the corner in 1987 was a diagnosis of breast cancer. Her husband was less than supportive, unable to cope with it. They split up briefly, not for the first or last time. ‘That was the drinking. He couldn’t look at things. He was terrified I was going to die. It was like getting rid of me before it happened.’

When Thaw was ill, she went to his every appointment and all his chemo treatments. She remembers once he embraced her and said: ‘I am so ashamed that I didn’t do this for you.’ But she made a full recovery. She is a survivor. Presumably every day must have felt like a bonus since then? ‘I wish I could say that was true, but I don’t learn by experience. If I’m honest, I fill my life out of practicality.

‘I’m very fearful. I get over one thing and assume there will be something else around the corner. I woke up with an ache in my foot this morning and thought, oh here it is, old age. Because we do disintegrate. I often accept work because I think I can’t put it off for a year.’

Punishing work too, given she has always suffered from debilitating stage fright. This aspect of her personality is hard to square with her no-nonsense, headmistress manner. Yet for all her calm professionalism, her meeting of challenges with a steady eye, Hancock is easily spooked and probably a bit neurotic, like a retired thoroughbred racehorse who can’t stop herself from galloping in the direction of the finish line whenever she glimpses a starting flag.

It is telling, reading back over this interview, how often she uses the word depression. It makes me wonder: is she addicted to the adrenalin of stage fright because she worries that life will feel flat, empty and, well, depressing without it? ‘In theory, but my goodness I do loathe that fear. With Sister Act, when we were about to open, I was lying on my bed thinking: “I cannot go through with this.” I was actually vomiting with fear. Even when it’s happening, I am thinking: “This is stupid. Irrational.” There are people dying and starving in the world.

‘But even when you say you have no reason to be frightened, it doesn’t help. It used to ruin performances, but now I go to see a hypnotist before a show. The main fear is drying up, especially in a musical because you can’t improvise your way out of it. Even when you know your lines backwards there is the danger of going on automatic pilot and suddenly realising you don’t know what comes next.’

Does she get nervous about live television as well? ‘It’s a different kind of nervousness. On Over the Rainbow, I was nervous about swearing, because I swear a lot, and badly, and the BBC is really hot about it. I said: “Eyes, teeth and tits” in one episode and that worried them. On Dorothy, I usually wanted to say: “Oh for f—’s sake, pull yourself together!”

I think, as I get on, I will become one of those older women who wear purple and suddenly go berserk and obscene.’ She laughs, realising she has just described the character she played in the Catherine Tate Show, the sister of the swearing ‘Nan’. ‘Or maybe the opposite will happen to me. Maybe when I become demented I will become very prim and proper.’


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.