The musty air of Manchester’s Portico Library has just been pricked, incongruously, with the sharp smell of vinegar. It is wafting off the plate of fish and chips with peas that Tony Booth, father-in-law to the prime minister-in-waiting, is busy polishing off. The domed and pillared interior of this timeworn library, it should be explained, doubles as a sort of gentlemen’s club and, as a member, and a gentleman, the 65-year-old comic actor is entitled to dine here. Today’s menu is his favourite. It goes with the working-class, Old Labour, unreconstructed-and-proud-of-it image he has of himself. (The peas should be mushy, of course, but you can’t have everything).
Behind him, the walls are lined with 18th-century history books that have been darkened by soot from the gas lamps that once lit the room. Many of the volumes are held together by ribbons, their paper brittle, their leather bindings worn. A bit like old Boothie, really. For with his pallid, parchment-dry skin and his shock of white hair – in stark contrast to the black polo-shirt he wears buttoned up to the neck – the reformed hell-raiser looks like a wraith who has haunted this shadowy room for centuries.
In between forkfuls of chips, Booth explains why he, personally, would never want to be a politician. Once, when staying with the Blairs, he answered the phone, only to be harangued by an irate constituent who demanded to know who he was. The Blairs came back just in time to hear Booth explaining to the caller that he was the butler. ‘My son-in-law had a sense of humour failure about it,’ Booth recalls with a wheezy laugh. By all accounts, Labour’s po-faced spin doctors are taking a similarly dim view of Booth’s offers to help out with their campaign. Perhaps some of them are old enough to remember the 1964 General Election, when the Labour Party staged a rally at Wembley and invited Booth to offer his services. He caused a scene. George Brown announced to the rally that he’d managed to secure a seat for his brother, Ron. At this, Booth shouted: ‘Nepotism!’ Other comrades on the platform hissed at him to be quiet but he continued: ‘This party is against nepotism!’ And many in the audience took up the cry.
Sadly, thanks to the chief election strategist Peter Mandelson – the man who, according to inaccurate legend, once confused mushy peas with guacamole – Labour rallies are more stage-managed these days. But even so, it would seem a shame to gag Tony Booth. It would also be a tactical mistake, because, if deployed with care, The Tony Booth could prove to be a ‘secret weapon’, deadlier even than The Norma Major. He is, after all, a man of deep political conviction. And, though low and breathy, his voice has a grittiness and resonance to it that makes everything he says seem as if it comes from the heart – an actor’s trick, it may be, but even the appearance of genuine feeling would do much to restore credibility in the traditional Labour working-class heartlands.
Rogues, after all, don’t come much more lovable. The man could have stepped straight off the pages of an 18th-century picaresque novel. Indeed, read Labour of Love – an updated version of his memoirs which he is, rather mischievously, publishing this week, during the closing rounds of the election campaign – and you will be reminded of Fielding’s Tom Jones. The comparison may not work stylistically – the Booth sentence is an unruly beast – but in terms of the harum-scarum adventures and sexual escapades of their heroes, the two books read as one.
The sub-title of Booth’s book is ‘The amazing life of Tony’s Blair’s famous father-in-law’ and, for once, the blurb seems justified. Even before he became famous as the ‘Scouse git’, Alf Garnett’s acerbic, left-wing son-in-law in the television sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Booth was well known as a hard-drinking, bed-hopping bounder. During the Fifties and Sixties he crossed paths with everyone who was anyone: he had a brush with the infamous Richardson gang; was propositioned late at night in a back street by the Tory Foreign Secretary John Selwyn-Lloyd; and, after taking part in a CND demonstration, spent a night in a cell with John Osborne and Bertrand Russell. Inevitably, our hedonistic hero fell in with the Wild Bunch, that gang of Swinging Sixties carousers and womanisers which included Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Richard Harris.
Generally, Booth rampaged through that era like a twister, leaving behind him a trail of abandoned lovers and children (among them, the young Cherie and her sister Lyndsey, the daughters of his first wife Gale whom he left when the girls were aged seven and five respectively). ‘Life has been one long ad lib, really,’ he now reflects. ‘But I don’t suppose I’d do anything differently if I had my time again. My 18-year-old self wouldn’t take advice from me anyway.’
If you watched the episodes of Till Death Us Do Part which were recently repeated on the BBC, you would have noticed a recurring gesture Booth has: a sort of exaggerated shrug that undulates down his arms and rolls off his hands. He still does it when he wants to avoid answering a question. And now, of course, there are also other, more ageing tics and traits. When he is talking quickly, Booth punctuates his speech with one of two flourishes, either ‘Noo, noo, noo noo’ or ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ In more considered moments, he will come over all conspiratorial, leaning forward in his chair, the better to fix you with his bulging, watery eyes, and speaking in a low whisper, pausing occasionally to look over his shoulder as if to check that no one is listening.
All in all, there is something beguilingly cosy about having a chat with Tony Booth. He is at once an ancient mariner and a Baron Munchausen. Perhaps it is just that all old men become your grandfather in the end, but you do want to listen to him and you do want to believe what he says. Like all grandfathers, he refers to the War at every turn. ‘When we defended this country we got our pride back. What has happened to that spirit since then? We should be at war with poverty now…’ And at times his conservatism could be that of a crusty brigadier living in a big draughty house in Kent: he decries the Americanisms creeping into the language and says that acting is not as much fun as it used to be: ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes. We fooled around but bloody hell we got it done on time! Now everything is run by accountants..’ Et cetera.
Some of the episodes Booth relates are the stuff of pure farce. He grimaces as he recalls the time he was caught in bed with Peter Finch’s girlfriend. Finch came back unexpectedly and Booth had to scramble out on to the balcony – ‘It’s 2.30 in the morning, I’m ankle-deep in snow, freezing cold and naked.’ As he describes his journey back to his own flat – down drainpipes, over spiked railings, neighbours screaming, police sirens wailing – he shifts in his seat. ‘I’m trying to seek a comfortable position,’ he grins as he arches his back and stretches out his legs. ‘That’s why I’m sprawling. Not piles.’
When it is suggested that his life story would make a good film and that the part of Tony Booth could be played by, say, Chris Evans (who, although charmless, is the wild man of his generation, a northerner and a Labour supporter), Booth shudders. ‘Chris Evans’s politics are neither here nor there. There are plenty of people in the Labour Party with whom I would not like to share the same platform. I won’t name names, but let’s just say…’ he moves closer, ‘I don’t like them.’
You assume he means modernisers. Booth, after all, was recently accused by his own union, Equity, of being a political dinosaur. ‘Put it like this,’ he says. ‘The Yuppies are turning their back on the Yuppiedom. The rats are coming back on board. We must be nearing port.’ When pressed, it emerges that Booth is not so much a dinosaur as a Luddite who doesn’t share his son-in-law’s vision of a brave new world in which we all carry laptops. ‘The worst thing that has happened to society, to all of us, has been the invention of the silicon chip,’ he rasps.
Booth’s tradional socialist values were inspired in part by the time his father was injured while working in the hold of a ship. A derrick swung and smashed his pelvis, back, one arm and one leg. For three weeks everyone assumed his father would die. Thoughtfully, the shipping company stopped his wages. They even docked him half a day’s pay for the work he missed after the accident. The only source of income the family had was from Tony’s paper round and what his mother earned charring. It is a shocking, almost Dickensian story of brutal bosses abusing downtrodden workers – but, thanks to the unions, we no longer live in such unenlightened times. Indeed, thanks to the unions, haven’t the workers actually turned the tables and abused the bosses.
Booth thumps the desk indignantly. ‘Noo, noo, noo, noo! For a thousand years, you and yours – Telegraph types – have been abusing your power in the most appalling fashion. You kept us enslaved all that time and you have the bloody nerve to say the unions abused their power for five years, maybe ten? Isn’t that a fair exchange? In the areas of great, great crimes committed by one side against the other, my God, you are so far ahead of us!’
Passion, it’s called. And it makes a refreshing change from the honeyed words that are churned out by the Mandelson PR machine. It also reminds you that old Boothie hasn’t mellowed a bit; that this was the lad who, when invited by Harold Wilson to a reception at Number 10, disgraced himself gloriously by getting drunk, making disparaging remarks about the Cabinet, and then demanding that the guest of honour, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, go and refill his champagne glass for him. The performance got a laugh from Mary Wilson but earned a hissed rebuke from Harry Secombe: ‘For God’s sake, boy, don’t make a show of the profession in Number 10’.
Perhaps it is fear that Booth might do the same again that inclines the New Labour spin doctors to still his voice. And perhaps it is an awareness of this fear that prompts Booth to say that Labour politicans should never lose their sense of humour, even if someone jokes that they have a butler. ‘As for Tony, or my son-in-law, or the leader of the Labour Party, I’m not sure how I should refer to him in front of you, he is very funny in private. He will always put you at ease and is very at ease with himself. Above all, he’s a family man and, because his kids come running into the room and raise hell when he is preparing to make a speech, this helps him keep his feet on the ground.’ Presumably, rampaging father-in-laws have a similar effect.
Booth is certainly in little danger of taking himself, or his profession, too seriously – as an actor, he once ruined a scene opposite John Wayne because he kept getting the giggles: ‘I just kept looking at the Duke and thinking, “What’s with that terrible wig?”’ But there is also a darker, almost pathological side to Booth’s sense of fun. It stems, one suspects, from the amazing good fortune that marked his early life. As an idle 18-year-old, for example, he wangled the cushiest posting ever offered to a National Serviceman )Paris, in a luxury hotel, with no one to report to and nothing to do but act as a tour guide to ‘promiscuous’ American women). From then on, he was always in the right place at the right time to land roles in the theatre, even though he never really thought he had much acting talent. And whatever life-threatening scrapes his sexual profligacy landed him in he always escaped by the skin of his teeth.
He always got away with it. And getting away with it can take its toll psychologically. An urge towards self-destruction seemed to take over, perhaps because, as Ruskolnikov discovers in Crime and Punishment, criminals secretly want to be caught. Booth became even more reckless, had three lovers on the go at the same time and drank too much (he once even moved the polite and gentle Una Stubbs, his co-star in Till Death Us Do Part, to say to him: ‘Sober, you’re a lovely fellow, but drunk you’re a severe pain in the arse.’)
In 1979, Booth was finally granted the nemesis he demanded as his right. Like a doomed character in a Greek tragedy, he staggered home from the pub one night to find his girlfriend had locked him out. With the help of a couple of equally drunk soldiers he had met that evening, he attempted to smoke her out by setting light to a 25-gallon drum of paraffin. He blew himself up and suffered burns so horrific that he spent much of that following year delirious with pain in hospital. ‘One foot swelled up to size 18, the other 15,’ he recalls. ‘The skin on my legs had little elasticity, so I could hardly bend them. To put my underpants on, I had to swing them round and round before trying to lasso one of my enormous feet!’ His hands still bear the scars and, as he demonstrates the lasso technique, they rustle like dry leaves.
The fire proved to be both a peripeteia and a catharsis. He stopped drinking, did a degree in History at Manchester University and, even though until that point he had been a Roman Catholic blissfully unhindered by guilt, tried to enter a monastery. ‘I threw myself on the mercy of Holy Mother Church,’ he says shrugging. ‘And she kicked my arse.’
A pot of tea that Booth has ordered arrives and he slips into grandfather mode again, complaining that nowadays if you take white sugar they only give you a half spoon because they assume its bad for you, that he doesn’t know what the world’s coming to, et cetera. He is now as addicted to tea as he once was to alcohol. ‘I had a lot of help stopping drinking in that I was comatose for a long time,’ he says. ‘I dried out. Now I always say to anyone with a drink problem, “Look, if I could give it up, anyone could.”’ As he lights up a cigarette he reflects that his drinking was probably caused by unhappiness, which in turn stemmed from a feeling of being unloved. ‘There was a wonderful old saying of my grandmother’s: “When poverty comes through the door, love flies out the window.” And it’s true. Poverty makes love very difficult.’
Although he has had three wives and two long-term partners, the love of Booth’s life was probably Pat Phoenix, the former Coronation Street star. This was the woman he first fell in love with as a young man and then went out with again when he was in his fifties. She was also the woman he nursed through cancer and married shortly before her death in 1986. ‘You never get over something as painful as that,’ he says. Pause. ‘But you do eventually learn not to always have it at the forefront of your mind. The brain adapts and tells you that its good to cry but better to move on. Her memory is still alive, but you can mention her name to me now and I can say, “That’s fine.” But there was a time when I couldn’t even bear to look at a photo of her.’
Perhaps it was this (rather than the callousness and greed of which he was accused at the time) that lay behind his decision to auction off his Pat Phoenix memorabilia, including photo albums, for £60,000, three years after the actress died. Then again, he probably did need the money – he’s twice been declared bankrupt. And the uncharitable might say, though he has a reputation for generosity, the profit motive lies behind his tactless decision to launch his bawdy autobiography at a time when all eyes are focused on his son-in-law.
Yet this, one suspects, is to misunderstand Booth’s nature. For despite his wealth of experience, Tony Booth is an innocent. He probably thinks he really can do something to help Tony Blair’s election campaign. And, contrary to what some have suggested, Booth would hate to think he was an embarrassment to his daughter and son-in-law. He does, after all, know what it’s like to find parents cringe-making. When he appeared in his first play he told his family they could come but only on the condition that they went straight into the theatre without talking to anyone, and then went home without coming to the stage door. He felt ashamed of himself afterwards.
Cherie Booth has probably allowed herself the odd cringe, too. It might be that her father makes the odd tacky remark (‘I don’t think my daughter’s mind is usually occupied with clothes,’ he once said when asked about her glittering career as a QC. ‘She’s too involved with her briefs!’) but she always seems prepared to forgive him (when he was in hospital she visited him every week, for instance, and she was at his side last year to comfort him when his third marriage, to an American public relations consultant, broke down). There is, doubtless, a lot to forgive. But she also has things to be grateful for. It was Booth who inspired Cherie’s early belief in socialism (when she stood as a Labour candidate for Thanet North in 1983 there were three Tories behind her on the platform: Booth, Blair and Benn). It was also her father’s contacts in the Labour Party which helped steer her husband towards a career in politics: Blair had his first glimpse of the interior of Westminster after Booth advised him to meet Tom Pendry, a Labour MP. It was an epiphanous moment for the young barrister – and it convinced him that politics, rather than the law, was his natural calling.
It is Booth, too, whom Cherie has to thank for her wilfully eccentric name. Was it chosen out of mischief one evening after too many cherry brandies had been sunk? Was it perhaps some rather sentimental reference to a romantic weekend in Paris? No, it was much more straightforward than that: Booth was on tour in Wales, with Gale, and the couple stayed with a woman who had a beautiful daughter called Cherie.
There is something else for which Cherie has cause to be thankful. She says it is comforting to be able to tell her own children that she knows how difficult it is growing up with a famous father. And, for their part, Blair’s children say they adore Booth’s company because he makes them laugh. (Their mother also makes them laugh, with the affectionate and convincing impression she does of her errant father).
Booth has seven daughters and when you ask him if he is proud of Cherie he says diplomatically, ‘Of course, I’m so proud of everything my kids do. They’re all terrific.’ For all his faults, his children seem to think the same of him. He’s not sure why everyone always forgives him in the end but he acknowledges that it may be to do with his happy-go-lucky nature and the confidence he acquired from being brought up in a predominantly female environment. ‘Having been brought up and surrounded by women for most of my life, I tend to ignore the dangers,’ he says with a sigh. ‘Much as your mother and sisters and daughters might resent you, they are not actually going to kill you for what you’ve done.’
Although Tony Booth has been forced to face reality in certain areas of his life – he will say of his wild youth, for instance, that, ‘I had far more lust than good sense’ – he has always managed to combine this with a stubborn streak of naivety, which, as with his literary alter ego Tom Jones, accounts for his heroic lack of inhibitions. Booth has enough self-awareness to recognise that there is some truth in this. ‘I never think I’m na•ve at the time but on reflection I usually realise I have been.’ Thoughtful pause. ‘In the main, women have forgiven me because they see I am na•ve, basically. And they accept that in the end.
Naivety is probably what has helped Booth survive both the high jinks and the tragedies in his life. He now drives a Fiat Tipo with a disabled sticker on it and lives alone in a cluttered terraced house in the Derbyshire village of Broadbottom. Although he has a picturesque valley to look out on to, he says he doesn’t get out much nor does he walk much because of the injuries that still afflict his legs and feet. Nowadays, he says, rather than getting depressed, he sits, thinks, watches television and writes on the computer in a room that he has converted into a study.
It is here that he plans to watch the election results on television in the early hours of 2 May. When asked how he will feel if his son-in-law becomes the youngest prime minister this century, he scribbles down his phone number: ‘Promise to call me the day after the election and I’ll tell you: You may hear “I’m sorry. The undertaker is just taking him out. The excitement was too much.”’


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.