One of America’s most successful comic actors is back in Britain. Tracey Ullman tells Nigel Farndale why

At Tracey Ullman’s suggestion, we meet at a private member’s club around the corner from her home in Mayfair. In some ways this salubrious venue seems an appropriate setting, because according to the Sunday Times Rich List, the 55-year-old comic actor is worth £75m.

But in other ways it does not. The club is one of those places where you find yourself talking in muted voices so as not to disturb other members, and this doesn’t suit the voluble personality I’ve encountered in YouTube clips of Ullman on chat shows down the years. In those she’s very full on, an extrovert who seems more American than British, not least because she became a US citizen in 2006, after 20 years of living there.

She did this because she wanted to get the right to vote in presidential elections, but she still keeps a British passport and remains an active member of the Labour party (a good friend of Neil Kinnock, no less). She describes herself as a hybrid. “We’ve always come and gone as we’ve been allowed, taxwise,” she says in a voice that evokes her roots in Slough.

Although Ullman insists she enjoys her anonymity in London – “I can observe people on the tube without them recognising me” – she is still recognisable if you are old enough to remember her BBC shows from the early 80s. A few greying hairs at the temples, perhaps, and at one point she reaches in her handbag for reading glasses, but she hasn’t changed much. She puts this down to her daughter encouraging her to run half-marathons, but she has “always been fit, from being a dancer. And I’ve never had plastic surgery.” As she points out: “It’s always men who do the surgery, so it’s their idea of beauty, not a woman’s idea. Age with dignity is my thing – go grey.”

It was after she made her name here in TV comedy shows with Lenny Henry (Three of a Kind), Rik Mayall (A Kick up the Eighties) and French and Saunders (Girls on Top) that Ullman moved to America and found a much giddier level of fame with The Tracey Ullman Show. Aside from winning her an armful of Emmys and Golden Globes, this sketch show was the first commercial hit for the fledgling Fox network, hailing her as a female Peter Sellers. The show also launched a certain yellow cartoon family on the world: “I suppose the only way younger people in the UK might have heard of me now is if they’re fans of The Simpsons – my show was where it started. Dan [Castellaneta, the voice of Homer] and Julie [Kavner, Marge] were on the show when Matt [Groening, the creator of The Simpsons] came in and pitched.”
‘Age with dignity is my thing’: a scene from her new show.
‘Age with dignity is my thing’: a scene from her new show. Photograph: Craig Topham/BBC

To be given her own show was liberating. “As a woman on British TV at that time you could be a Benny Hill girl and that was about it,” she says. But she never stopped feeling British, even when most of her audience thought she was American.

Her children reflect her dual identity. Her son Johnny lives in LA and works as a writer on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Her daughter Mabel used to work for Harriet Harman and stood as a Labour candidate in the last election , but didn’t win. “I did a lot of campaigning with Mabel and Harriet,” Ullman recalls. “Harriet says things like: ‘Well, that’s not going to butter anyone’s parsnips, and you can use that as a quote.’”

It was during the election that Ullman started making a new six-part comedy show for the BBC, which very evidently considers it a great coup to get Ullman back after 30 years. Tony Hall, the director-general, turned up to watch rehearsals, and even when we meet the material is being very carefully guarded (I’m shown the first episode on a laptop in another room before meeting Ullman).

The best moments are uncanny impersonations – Dame Judi Dench as a shoplifter, Dame Maggie Smith doing audition tapes and Angela Merkel as a vain and frivolous woman about town. “Merkel is always surrounded by men in suits,” Ullman says, slipping into a German accent. “I vanted to write a sketch with her being very feminine, confiding to her friend who does her hair and make-up that she doesn’t vant to look ‘too sexy’.”

Ullman is entertaining, engaging, slipping in and out of voices, though at times she can seem more vulnerable, a little ill at ease. Until I tell her I enjoyed watching the new show she keeps drawing herself back in her chair and narrowing her eyes at me. For a while I put it down to our having to talk in subdued voices, but I eventually realise that hardly anyone has seen a preview and she has been waiting to hear my thoughts; the relief is palpable. “It was horrible waiting for your verdict,” she responds, putting a funny veneer on things by adopting a doctor’s voice. “‘I’ve seen your X-rays and there is a dark shadow in one corner.’ That’s what it felt like!”
Labour gains: with Neil Kinnock in Ullman’s My Guy video in 1984
Labour gains: with Neil Kinnock in Ullman’s My Guy video in 1984.

Perhaps her humorous energy seems slightly tainted because her return to British comedy comes at a time of great sadness in her life. In December 2013 her husband Allan McKeown, a British TV producer, died of prostate cancer, three days before the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary, and last year her mother Doreen died in a fire at her retirement home caused by a discarded cigarette. An inquest ruled the death to be accidental.

It becomes clear as we talk about these events that the extrovert side – the entertainer who craves attention – is masking a version of herself that’s more introverted and uncertain. And to some extent it seems comedy has proved a coping strategy. “I did throw myself into work when my mother died,” she says. “It was a good distraction. But I had already agreed to do the new show, and it was a year on from my husband dying. Coming back to the UK was part of that – I sold our house in LA because it reminded me too much of him. I’d had a long time living with someone very ill there.” She lowers her eyes. “I miss him so much. I was younger than him [by 15 years], but even so I’ve been left [on my own] younger than I thought I’d be.”

She admits that life didn’t really begin for her until she met McKeown in 1982 and that he was the one who made her feel brave enough to try new things. When Charlotte Moore, the controller of BBC1, approached Ullman with the idea of doing a new show she agreed partly because he would have wanted her to do it.
‘I miss him so much’: with her late husband Allan McKeown, who died in 2013.
‘I miss him so much’: with her late husband Allan McKeown, who died in 2013. Photograph: David Livingston/Getty Images

“He was the funny one in our family, not me,” she says. “He was so droll.” McKeown certainly had a good comedy pedigree, having created the groundbreaking Witzend Productions with the sitcom writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. His hits included Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the feature film of Porridge; his circle of friends included Peter Cook.

He also produced some of his wife’s shows in America, which continued off and on for 15 years. But Ullman’s drive to carry on working seemed to dim somewhat after McKeown made a fortune from the sale of his cable channel SelecTV, a source of wealth which the couple added to by “flipping” high-value properties in LA. (Contrary to what some suppose, their wealth didn’t come from her involvement with The Simpsons – in fact she once sued that show for a share of its merchandising profits and lost.) Together they seem to have made a formidable and profitable team and it’s telling that she still refers to her husband as if he were still alive: “It’s been extraordinary what has happened to both of us, my husband and me. I never take it for granted. Money is freedom. I’m not excessive or flash. I live well. What can I say? It’s great. But some of the reports about how much I have, you know the Sunday Times Rich List – they are just hilarious. I don’t know where they get their figures from. It used to amuse my husband, who liked to keep them guessing. Whenever someone suggested a figure he would say: ‘Don’t be ridiculous – we’re worth much more than that.’”

Though she makes light of her wealth, I can’t help feeling she finds it embarrassing. New Labour may have been “intensely relaxed with people getting filthy rich”, but she is Old Labour, or at least the version of Labour exemplified by Kinnock. Their friendship began after he appeared in one of her pop videos in 1984. “His daughter liked my records, so he agreed. At the time it was very controversial. I don’t know whether it would be done with a political leader even now.”

Ullman’s politics had a lot to do with her impoverished childhood. Her father, a Polish émigré who worked as a travel agent, died of a heart attack while reading her a bedtime story when she was six. In an effort to cheer her family up, Ullman put on shows in her mother’s bedroom, standing on the windowsill performing alongside her older sister Patty. “My mother had a tough time after my father died; our fortunes came and went. She married again, which was odd for us as children. Thanks to our Labour council I got a grant to go to stage school at 12 and I became very independent. I left home at 16 to become a dancer in Berlin.”

In recent months Ullman and her sister have been digging out old photographs of their mother and reminiscing. She insists that there was never any sibling rivalry between them, but says Patty was always the “glamorous one. She was even a Playboy bunny at one point, although I think it was more a case of her being in charge of the till because she had trained as an accountant. I was the funny one who looked like a troll and could make people laugh – I was always told I was odd.”

The comment makes me wonder whether her old insecurities have been resurfacing since her mother died. She tells me that during the recording of her new show she realised she was making it as a sort of tribute to her mother, and when I ask if she sometimes finds herself hiding behind her impersonations, she concedes there is some truth in that. “In private I’m quiet. I spend all my time watching BBC4 documentaries and knitting.” (She’s not joking – she has written a book on the subject.) But even when she lived in Hollywood she says she led a fairly tame existence. “I never went to the parties, just worked and played tennis. We didn’t do drugs or all the showbiz stuff. I was signed to Stiff Records when I started out and I used to enjoy wearing my ‘If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck’ T-shirt in the supermarket just to shock people.” She would find herself being drawn to any expat punks who came to live in LA, such as the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones. “His dirty secret was that he loved REO Speedwagon and Peters & Lee.”

She hasn’t cut her ties with LA. She still does the odd film, most recently Into the Woods with Meryl Streep, an actor she first worked with in 1985 in Plenty (her other credits include Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks and Bullets over Broadway). Ask how she would refer to herself and she will say she’s a “comic actor” (not a standup; she doesn’t write). “My face is a good one for doing impersonations,” she surmises, turning again to self-deprecation. “I’ve got small eyes, a low brow and a big head.” She laughs.“When I worked at the BBC in the 80s the only wigs that would fit me were Mike Yarwood’s.” It seems a happy if disconcerting note on which to end, the American citizen indulging in some very British self-deprecation.


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.