Ja! Ja! Ja! She’s back! As Sofia Helin plays detective Saga Norén in The Bridge for the final time, Nigel Farndale meets her in Stockholm. Where else?

As viewers of the Scandi noir series The Bridge will know, Sweden is a land without sunshine or green shoots. They film it that way, in the winter months. Its star, meanwhile, the detective Saga Norén, played by 46-year-old Sofia Helin, is a woman who rarely if ever smiles.

My sense of disconcertion is acute, then, when Helin arrives on a cloudless morning in Stockholm and won’t stop smiling. She turns out to be one of those people who can smile and talk at the same time.

In her hand is a cycle helmet. Although she is (probably) Sweden’s best-known actress, people never point or stare as she cycles past. “It’s considered uncool to do that here,” she says in a crisp yet breathy voice, one that emphasises the plosive musicality of her Swedish-accented English.

Or it could be that people don’t recognise her, with her long, blonde hair tucked into a helmet, because her look as Saga – the combat boots, the greatcoat, the leather trousers – is so distinctive. These trousers have become associated with her to such an extent, they are now on display in a museum in Malmö, where the drama is set. The only Saga-ish things about Helin today are her quizzically arched eyebrows and the scars above her mouth, which we will come to.

For now we discuss a scene in the fourth and final season of The Bridge on BBC Two. In it Saga is released from prison, having been acquitted following a false allegation, and steps back into her old investigator role in a way that is almost fetishistic. “Yes,” Helin says. “When Saga is putting on the leather trousers and the boots and the coat, that’s what we wanted to tell the audience. She’s back. It’s a bit like stepping into the character, the boots especially for me. But it wasn’t hard to be her in prison either, without these clothes. The secret I found to playing her is that she doesn’t move her hips. It helps to straighten all my body up.”

In that scene, it was almost as if the producers had come to recognise Saga’s true potency as a sex symbol, for men and women alike. “I never thought about it like that,” she says. “Saga is vulnerable and yet hard. I never thought about her as a sexy person. I try not to look at my characters from the outside, like objects, but from the inside.”

Actually, Helin doesn’t like looking at herself on screen at all. “It makes me feel overwhelmed and sick. I don’t have the kind of ego needed to look at myself on a big screen and enjoy it. Instead I will watch myself on an iPhone, so it is smaller.”

The complex, chilly, socially awkward Saga has Asperger’s, and when Helin is playing her she says she feels like she is in a cement costume, behind a glass wall. It is a remarkable performance, deserving of the acclaim it has garnered from critics. One of the ways in which Saga’s condition manifests itself is in her unromantic attitude to sex. When, for example, a man she likes the look of smiles at her in a bar she says, “Vill du har sex?” (You want to have sex?) In another scene, she intimidates a would-be lover by giving him graphic instructions, dialogue Helin wrote herself.

“Do you find that scary?” she asks when I mention this. Yes I do, I say, but then I’m British and repressed.

“Well, in Sweden people are very matter-of-fact about sex. Like the way they use Tinder to meet and have sex.”

More liberated and honest? She nods. “Saga is very frank about what she wants in bed. She wants to fulfil her needs. Because she has Asperger’s she can’t hide what she is thinking. If I wanted to hit on a man I would do it subtly, with little signals, saying, ‘Yes, yes,’ without words, but she can’t do that. In real life, people with Asperger’s can’t measure whether a situation is dangerous or not.”

She thinks young people in Sweden especially are becoming more “Saga-like” in their sexual tastes. “It may be to do with the availability of pornography on the internet,” she says. “I feel uncomfortable with the way teenagers have such easy access to it. And it’s every kind. What is considered normal sexual activity has changed. They have intimacy without intimacy. I have a teenager and I find it worrying that he will see these things.”

Me, too, I say, but what can parents do, beyond using filters? “You can’t really stop pornography, but you can do it in a better way, not always from a man’s perspective. I have heard of a Swedish company doing female-friendly porn. That is a good idea.”

She is married to a Lutheran priest, Daniel Götschenhjelm. They have two children, a boy, 14, and a girl, 8, who attend a progressive, “gender neutral” school. Her experiences of being that age have made her wary. “I was rebellious as a teenager,” she says. “Didn’t want to go to school. I drank quite early.”

“Is it possible to have an orgasm if you are scared? I don’t think so”

How early? “Twelve. And I smoked. I developed early too, physically, so I was mature before my brain was mature. When I was 12 I looked like a 16-year-old. One time I met an older boy and said, ‘I’m 16,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m 18. Let’s hang out,’ and he wanted to do more than hang out. Just at the right moment my mother appeared and said, ‘Sofia, what are you doing?’ and I pretended to be angry with her, but I was relieved.”

As a teenager, was there a moment when she realised her looks gave her a certain power over boys, and made other girls jealous? “I do remember going into a school canteen one day and I felt everyone was looking at me. I was 13. I thought, why is this? I didn’t understand.”

Her first steady boyfriend was when she was 17, she says. “So I did things at the right age. But the way I grew up too quickly was that I took care of my father too much. He had difficulties. My parents divorced. I lived with my mother, but my father lived close.”

Their divorce didn’t put her off marriage? “No, I married at 31, so I had my years of wild life. I fell in love constantly. I find it easy to fall in love.” A smile. Pause. “I met my husband in acting school [before he became a priest], when I was 25. We were together for a long time before we got married.”

Helin’s fame, as well as Saga’s status as a symbol of female sexual emancipation, hasn’t changed their relationship, she reckons. “Put it like this, he doesn’t think of me as a sex symbol. I don’t think in Sweden that’s my profile at all. That’s not how people see me.”

How do they see her, then? “I think they see me as being quite political and angry with things. And my husband, he sees me as I am, messy and vulnerable.”

She’s difficult to live with? “I have my dark moments, but we know how to cope with it after so many years.”

We discuss the Scandinavian reputation for melancholy and introversion, associated with the long dark winters. She seems the opposite of this today, but she says she has suffered from it in the past and still sees a therapist. “It is useful for an actor to stay open and I think all actors should have therapy. I am a curious person, so it suits me very good.” She corrects herself. “Very well. What I have to work with is my body and my mind. Therapy is like going to the gym for my mind. What I’m not comfortable with is an environment where you cannot talk. I cannot stand it when everyone is too polite.”

Don’t move to Britain then, I say. “But I love Britain!” she counters with a laugh. “No, what I mean is when people aren’t open, as if we are around a table and one of us is naked and the others are pretending that the person isn’t naked. That is what I don’t like.”

A curious mixture of confidence and low-level neurosis – she tells me she suffers from claustrophobia – Sofia Helin can seem as inscrutable as her best-known character. Her manner is direct, but she has a habit of answering a question with a question. Shortly after she was born, one of her brothers died in a car accident, aged six. And then her parents divorced when she was four. I ask if she thinks these events partly explain her rebelliousness as a teenager. “Yes, there was a strange atmosphere at home because we had lived through difficulties. I grew up with a feeling of something bad having happened in my family.”

Her childhood experiences also left her with a keen interest in philosophy, a subject she read for a degree at Lund University. “But I tend to read more politics than philosophy nowadays.”

She certainly is political: she campaigns for WaterAid, and was deeply upset about Brexit. “I couldn’t sleep the night of the Brexit vote. I woke at 5am to watch the news. To go apart is never a good solution.”

Although she also supports Sweden’s version of #MeToo – she even persuaded the Queen of Sweden to get on board with it – she is more forgiving than her Hollywood counterparts. “I think we’ve had enough [accusations] now. Men and women have got to get along to change things together. The trouble is, if someone is accused that person is out for ever. There is no room for change. If you do that, people get scared and deny the problem. It becomes like a war. That’s the sad thing. Men tend to think it is something against all men, but it is not.”

She had an encounter with a predatory man herself, at the start of her career. “One of the first castings I went to, there was this middle-aged man who said, ‘Can we take some photos together? Is that OK? I’m not so ugly, am I?’ So that was my first experience. I just said, ‘I don’t think so,’ and ran off.”

“I grew up with a feeling of something bad having happened in my family

We discuss a comment that the veteran feminist thinker Germaine Greer made the other day, citing The Bridge as an example of how depictions of sexual violence against women are driven by women, who are the main audience for crime drama. More than 30 per cent of women, she went on, have fantasies about being violated, according to recent research. “Yes, but don’t we all have fantasies that we don’t really want realised?” Helin asks. “Sex is so much about our instincts. So much. It can be natural for some women to have these fantasies, but I don’t think that is the same in real sex. Something that has just occurred to me: is it possible to have an orgasm if you are scared? I don’t think so.”

I ask her to what extent the cycling accident that left her with a scarred face at the age of 24 changed her self-identity. “When you are young you think you have all the time in the world. You are not so careful about your life. I got more careful after that. I was lucky not to die. The bike broke; I went over the handlebars and blacked out and woke up in hospital. So I lost my innocence after that. I had to have my teeth put back in and surgery on my face. I thought it would be the end of my acting career, but the scar turned out to be my trademark. It makes me distinctive. Directors usually want to use it rather than hide it.”

But not everyone takes that view. “I recently got a message on Instagram. An Australian guy saying, ‘You could have your scar fixed and it would completely change your life.’ So rude. I replied, ‘I love my scars; do you love yours?’”

After that accident her views on what makes a person attractive changed. “It’s like there is a mass psychosis in society that says youth and beauty are everything. I think it’s tied to our fear of dying. Everyone tries to avoid getting older.”

That must be harder for actresses who have to watch themselves on a big screen, I suggest. “Only because there is an idea that the actress has to be young and beautiful. I can’t stand watching movies where the women are there just to be pretty, usually dating an older guy. That’s something that should be buried and forgotten. I’ve started to produce and do my own stories. I was in Berlin talking about a new project and met a producer who said to me, ‘I know this photographer who thinks that the only thing that counts for female film stars is to be beautiful.’ That is so stupid. No wonder there is pressure on older women in this business. Beauty is not something you should suppress of course, but you should never forget there is a whole person there. I mean, what is beauty?”

Well, Keats said it was truth.

“Yes, truth. That’s a good answer. I think if I were to sit here today completely without make-up for this shoot, messy in my bra and jeans, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? With Saga, I asked for as little make-up as possible because in season one I had a young child and didn’t have time to sit in make-up every day. I think imperfection is going to be the new style.”

On the subject of films in which a younger actress plays opposite an older actor, she is in That Good Night, which has just been released. It turned out to be the last film Sir John Hurt made. He plays a writer who has found out he is dying. She plays his wife. “We knew John was dying during filming, so he was trying all these diets with healthy things, but he was fragile. He was lovely. I had my kids with me and he was so sweet with them. Even though he was quite weak physically, when the camera was on, it was like a lamp came on in his eyes.”

Hurt became something of a father figure to her, not least because during filming her own father, a retired office equipment salesman, was also dying. Did it force her to contemplate her own mortality? “I think about those questions constantly. It was painful but also beautiful to be able to follow my dad to his last breath. I stayed with him for four days in his room when he was dying and really saw the whole process. It was overwhelming. One of the most significant events in my life. It was like giving birth – in that same existential area.”

We have been sitting on sofas in a quiet corner of a cavernous photographic studio in Stockholm and now the photographer is ready to do the shoot. In her uninhibited Swedish way, Helin strips down to her black bra and knickers and tries on various outfits, settling on some trousers that are beige and, yes, leather. Then she plonks herself on the floor, assumes an almost manly pose, legs apart, and the smile that has been prevalent for the past hour melts from her face like snow in springtime.



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.