The surprise is that, in certain countries, Steven Spielberg gets mobbed whenever he’s spotted stepping out of a car or emerging from a hotel. Hair ruffled matily, congratulatory pats on back, autograph books thrust under nose. Not in Britain, obviously.  Because we’re a dignified and reserved people. But in certain countries. Mobbed.
Now, as Spielberg is the most successful film-maker in history – name credit on eight of the 15 biggest blockbusters – mobbing might be precisely what you would expect. Crowds do tend to behave embarrassingly when a celebrity is in their midst. But what this fails to take into account is the strange truth that 51-year-old Steven Spielberg is almost completely anonymous to behold.
I spent an hour studying him at close quarters as we talked about anti-Semitism and his childhood neuroses. He struck me as likeable man, unassuming and thoughtful. But at the end of that time I came away with only vague impressions of what he actually looked like. An Open University lecturer in physics, circa 1981, is about the best comparison I can offer. I’m confident there was a greying, neatly clipped beard involved. Oval-shaped, metal-framed glasses almost certainly came into it. And – I’m really just guessing about this – jeans and trainers may have been worn. But beyond that? Thomas Keneally once described him as having a face like a map of Poland, with stuck-on lips. And Martin Amis once mistook him for a Coke-machine fixer.
As to height, I’d say not especially tall. But this may just be because I’ve read somewhere that he is 5ft 8in. His body language is a bit defensive maybe, hunched shoulders, hands clasped between knees. And voice? I’ve no recollection whatsoever of what he sounded like. Even playing back my interview tape doesn’t really help. Perhaps it’s just that other famous directors contrive somehow to stand out from the crowd – Alfred Hitchcock had his droopy face and signature tune, Orson Welles his chipmunk cheeks, cloak and fedora, Woody Allen his thick glasses and adopted step-daughter – but with Spielberg you just look right past him.
When I arrive on a drizzling February morning at the log-cabin-effect Hollywood building where Spielberg works, I am led along corridors lined with the milestones of his career – a Jurassic Park dinosaur here, Jaws and Indiana Jones memorabilia there – and am left to wait in a room around which I immediately begin to snoop. A wooden beam. The thick impasto of a landscape painting. A russet-coloured kilim. A Steven Spielberg. A black upright piano. A framed ET storyboard. . . See? Rewind. Fourth item. While my back has been turned, Spielberg has insinuated himself into the room and is standing in the corner as unobtrusively as it is possible for a person to stand, short of not actually being in the room at all. ‘Ah,’ I say. Closely followed by a more reflective ‘Oh.’
The conversation picks up a bit after this and it soon emerges that Spielberg extends his views on the importance of being ordinary and anonymous in appearance to the details of his domestic life. It’s 10am and he has been up since six. ‘I have two school drops,’ he says. ‘The first is at seven, then I make breakfast for everyone and take the other three kids at eight. Life is not worth living if you can’t do car pool.’
Steven Spielberg and his second wife, actress Kate Capshaw, have seven children, of various provenance, who scamper about their light and airy $12-million second home in Pacific Palisades, California. Max, Spielberg’s oldest ‘biological’ child – as they say on the West Coast – was born in 1985. Two more recent additions to the family are adopted African-Americans – Theo, nine, and Mikaela George, two – and their father has just arranged a special screening for them of his latest film, Amistad, which is about the slave trade. ‘I really wanted my children to know about this story,’ the director says. ‘I was with them when they saw the film and my nine-year-old, Theo, who is black, felt a lot of compassion for Cinqué [the leader of the African captives] and really wanted to see him get back to Africa, to his wife. It made him appreciate the impact that slavery had on this country and on Africa as well.  But the other kids thought there wasn’t enough action in the film. Too much talk!’
The intention, he adds, is for the overall composition of the film to resemble a still-life tableau, so that nothing distracts from the power of the set speeches. There are, however, some shocking and dramatic scenes woven in as well – notably when we see the Africans being whipped, starved and chained together in the cargo hold of the slave ship. As with the more graphic scenes in the multi-Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, the modest idea behind this, according to the director, is to force vast audiences to confront the full horror of the crimes of history in order to avoid repeating them.
The film has been criticised for presenting the history of the abolitionist movement from a rather self-congratulatory white perspective. ‘I don’t see it that way,’ Spielberg says after a pause. ‘I felt everyone had to share in the pride of an American Supreme Court which, except for one dissenting vote, turned these Africans back to the freedom they were born with. I felt a wave of patriotism at that. Amistad is really about the beginning of the moral conscience of America.’
Spielberg does not conclude that there is a natural condition in man that inclines him toward the exploitation of others. ‘I’m a bit more optimistic than that,’ he says. ‘I always look on the bright side. I wasn’t being cynical when I made Amistad. I just feel man hasn’t evolved far enough. I mean, the Holocaust was only 54 years ago.’
Spielberg has a benign image. On the one hand, thanks to films like ET, he represents wholesome all-American family values. On the other, with films such as The Color Purple and Schindler’s List, he is seen as a liberal-minded humanitarian. When it became known that he was planning a film about the Holocaust the intelligentsia in America was appalled. They assumed that the archetypal Hollywood populist would be far too shallow to do justice to the subject. Taking a similar view, the World Jewish Congress objected to him filming on the site of Auschwitz – eventually he was allowed to film outside the gates.
He had, of course, set himself a seemingly impossible task and, in choosing to give an account of the Holocaust through a story which had a positive ending, he knew he was leaving himself open to charges of trivialisation. ‘I was aware of that,’ he now says. ‘And I was nervous about it. It did take me ten years to start work on Schindler’s List and part of that was due to my fear that I wasn’t going to be able to acquit myself in a manner that would bring anything less than shame to the memory of the Holocaust. I didn’t want to belittle or trivialise it. I worked hard not to soften it or make it easy to watch.  The film doesn’t have a positive ending. You know the victims will be ravaged with nightmares for the rest of their lives.’
‘For many survivors the nightmare began with liberation,’ Spielberg explains. ‘Because that was when they had a chance to assess their losses. When they were in Auschwitz or Treblinka they didn’t know for sure whether the rest of their families were dead.’ Twenty members of Spielberg’s family were murdered in the concentration camps. Both his parents’ parents were European Jews; his father’s side of the family coming from an area of Austria which is now a part of Poland, and his mother’s side from Odessa in the Ukraine. Spielberg thinks of himself as Jewish-American, he says.  But his Jewish identity was not really something that concerned him until he made Schindler’s List. Perhaps there was an element of denial in this. After all, as a child growing up in an affluent white neighbourhood of Cincinnati, he says, he encountered a lot of anti-Semitism. A gang of school-children once gathered outside his family home chanting, ‘The Spielbergs are dirty Jews.’ Classmates would cough the word Jew into their hands when they passed by him. One day he retaliated against his Jew-hating neighbours by smearing peanut butter on their windows.
His father, Arnold Spielberg, was a pioneering computer engineer and was always having to move house because of his work – from Ohio to New Jersey, then to Arizona and finally northern California. Wherever the family went they met racism, sometimes violent. At one point, the young Steven would have to be picked up from school by his parents every day, even though he was walking distance from home. At another, following regular anti-Semitic remarks about the size of his nose, he would attempt to stop it growing downward by tying it back with tape. ‘The nature of the anti-Semitism was always lack of education,’ he now reflects. ‘Not understanding what a Jew is. Anti-Semites invest a lot of ethnic, cultural stereotype and evil to something that scares them. Fear of my unknown. The effect it had on me was to turn me into a loner. It made me withdrawn and self-conscious and even turned me away from my family, who I was angry at for making me a Jew… I think I would have been a social reject anyway, even if I had been Protestant or Lutheran or Episcopalian. I would still have been introverted.’
For all his introversion, Steven Spielberg managed to be assertive at home. He has three younger sisters and, he admits, he would bully them, in part as a form of compensation for being bullied himself at school. After leaving school, he turned to films as a way of expressing himself and also as a form of escapism. Aged 21, he started loitering around the Universal Pictures lot and even squatted in an empty office until he got his amateur home movies seen by someone. They were deemed impressive enough for him to be offered a television contract – which meant him having to drop out of a degree in English at California State College. Folklore has it that he didn’t even stop to clean out his locker. He made Duel in 1971, and four years later made Jaws, the highest-grossing film of its time.
The chutzpah does not seem consistent with lack of self-esteem. Even so, to this day, Spielberg protests that he is basically very shy. ‘I work overtime to put up a faade to persuade people that I am not shy,’ he says. ‘I know how to break the ice better than I used to – but I still have a shaky stomach before I go to a party, even before I sit down for dinner with close friends. I’m always tongue-tied for the first ten minutes. Now, if I meet people for the first time who feel intimidated by me – and so don’t make eye contact – that makes me feel uncomfortable. Two people standing there who don’t know what to say to each other. That happens a lot.’
More incongruous still is the reputation shy Steven Spielberg has acquired for being ruthless with people who cross him – a producer who tried to take more credit that she deserved was summarily dropped, for instance. There were occasions, too, when in a fit of pique, the introverted director would storm off a film set. Perhaps it is more a matter of his overcompensating for what he perceives as being his social shortcomings. Then again, before he made Schindler’s List, Spielberg was often dismissed as an arch-manipulator of audience emotion, one who merely wallowed in maudlin sentimentality. He used never to read reviews of his work but claims now not to care unduly about what critics say of him. And while he believes part of his new found interest in history comes from an increasing awareness of his own mortality, paradoxically he says he is not concerned about his place in the history books. This doesn’t quite square with the liberal image-consciousness that inclines him to keep very quiet about the fact he has amassed a fine gun collection of old and new weapons. Nor does it explain the rumour that he has been buying up all the homes he lived in as a child with a view to turning them into Spielberg shrines, in the manner of Shakespeare’s birthplace.
‘I’m not that concerned about being remembered about my place in history,’ he says. ‘I don’t write my own epitaph every day. I was really satisfied with ET. It’s the most personal movie I ever made. The story of my childhood. I knew that even if I just carried on making sequels to Indiana Jones I would always have ET.’ ET, he points out, is less about a cute extraterrestrial coming to Earth, more about the nature of divorce in America. In the film, the boy’s parents are divorced and his father is always away from home. ET is his way of filling the void. For his part, Spielberg found his parents’ constant rowing and eventual divorce traumatic. He would stuff towels under the door to keep out the noise of their bickering. The house, he says, was pervaded with a sense of unhappiness.
His parents are still alive: his mother, Leah, remarried and now, aged 78, runs a kosher restaurant; his father married again last year, at the age of 80. Wearily Spielberg says that he didn’t really learn from his parents’ marital mistakes. His first marriage, to actress Amy Irving, ended in divorce, with Irving walking off with a $100-million settlement.  ‘My divorce?’ he says. ‘Yeah, I don’t really want to talk about that. It’s personal. But I think that, even though it sometimes strengthens the character, children from a divorced home are always damaged.’ According to Spielberg’s biographer Andrew Yule, the damage in the director’s case may have taken the form of a whole basket of neuroses – from nail-biting to phobias about insects, flying, the ocean, the dark, lifts, even of furniture with feet. ‘I’m no longer afraid of the dark,’ Spielberg now says. ‘Because that is where I screen my movies. But I’m still afraid of lifts. It’s a runaround sometimes.’ He emits a short laugh. ‘I have to go through so much hassle to take the stairs. I have to get people to unlock stairwells. Especially in Paris, where the lifts are so small. I walk ten floors to avoid them. Don’t know why it is. I’m not in analysis. Not an analysis kind of guy. I just have a fear of small spaces.’ He doesn’t think it’s to do with a fear of losing control, though, because he says he doesn’t mind driving in traffic where the actions of on-coming cars are unpredictable.
In terms of his career, though, whether it is because he is adept at controlling events or not, Spielberg has barely put a foot wrong. Will Amistad mark a departure from this phenomenal record? Spielberg claims to be concerned only that its message is put across, not that it makes a lot of money. But he doesn’t deny that much is riding on the film in terms of reputation: not least because it is the first Spielberg-directed production for Dreamworks, the Hollywood studio that he set up two years ago in partnership with music potentate David Geffen and former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. Some $2.7 billion has been invested in the company and it has been hailed as the first major studio to be founded in Hollywood since Charlie Chaplin helped set up United Artists in 1919. Its first feature – The Peacemaker – didn’t exactly break box-office records when it was released last autumn.
Richard Dreyfuss, star of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, once described Spielberg as a kid of 12 who decided to make movies – and is still 12. Spielberg is prescient enough to agree that he didn’t really mature as a film-maker until he made Schindler’s List. Whether he has retained any vestiges of childish self-aggrandising, shallowness and manipulation, though, is a matter for future historians to debate. After all, Spielberg is only 51.
This appeared in February 1998. Stephen Spielberg and Dreamworks went on to make the multi-Oscar-award-winning Saving Private Ryan, American Beauty and Gladiator. Spielberg was awarded a knighthood in 2000 and ran into trouble from LA planners after trying to built a five-storey stable for his wife’s horses.


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.