Does a knighthood compromise your journalistic integrity? Sir Trevor McDonald doesn’t lose sleep over the question. But he does have nightmares that the bongs are beginning on News at Ten and he’s stuck in a taxi, clawing at the seats. Nigel Farndale meets him

THERE’S an impostor in Sir Trevor McDonald’s office at the ITN studios on the Gray’s Inn Road. With his big square specs, short wiry mat of silver hair and slow-breaking, granite smile, he certainly looks like Sir Trevor. But this stranger lacks the calm authority of the newscaster who has presented News at Ten – with one notable hiatus – since 1990.

Sir Trevor McDonald: ‘What I see in the mirror is different, I think, to how viewers see me’

He stammers over certain words, he avoids eye contact, he claims to be a shy, cautious and insecure man who is uneasy about being cast as a national institution. ‘All I do is read the bloody news,’ he says, tapping a pen against his fingers. ‘I know it’s a proper job but, really, people do make too much of it.’ He looks away. ‘I’ve always felt ambivalent about being recognised just for appearing on television. What I see in the mirror is different, I think, to how viewers see me. I don’t identify with that person. I’m not comfortable watching myself. Not my idea of fun.’

In some ways, the insecurity and self-effacement is perverse, because this man has always seemed to play the role of Trevor McDonald so magnificently – avuncular, poetry-quoting, cricket-loving Trinidadian; clubbable bon viveur who drinks good champagne, smokes fine cigars and addresses colleagues as ‘dear boy’. In other respects, Sir Trevor may be right to feel like an impostor. He is a gentle man at the top of a profession which is in thrall to aggressive men (Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys). And the top is surely where he is: he’s been named Newscaster of the Year three times; he is, surveys consistently show, the newscaster most viewers recognise; and even a spokesman for the BBC, the arch-enemy, grudgingly admitted to me that

Sir Trevor is probably the nation’s favourite newsreader (as well as the most highly paid, having reportedly signed a £2.5-million four-year deal with ITN). His own views on his combative profession are quaint, a reminder that, although he is only 61, he is very much a product of the pre-War school of journalism. ‘We are sometimes too aggressive,’ he says of television interviewers. ‘Politicians don’t get a chance to explain policy properly.’ He sits back in his chair, legs apart, his suit trousers riding up to reveal socks pulled well over his calves. ‘We assume we already know what the policy is and go straight into the attack.’

Although the shelves in his office bulge with volumes of poetry – ‘I wrote poetry as a child but I would never visit the crime of my own poetry on anyone now’ – the personal touches are limited to a novelty wine bottle on his desk (labelled ‘Old Git’); a couple of photographs of his handsome 13-year-old son, Jack, smiling in his school uniform; and, framed and hung on the wall, pictures of Sir Trevor in various guises: as chairman of the Better English Campaign; as a guest on Parkinson; as the subject of a poster celebrating the 30th anniversary of News at Ten. Scrawled on a yellow Post-It note stuck to his computer screen are last night’s viewing figures: ITV’s News at Ten, 6.1 million; BBC Ten O’clock News, 4.6 million.

There is weighty symbolism in this flimsy piece of paper. In March 1999 ITV axed News at Ten to make way for more films and drama. It certainly provoked drama. The channel lost a million viewers and, after much lobbying by politicians on both sides, as well as the threat of action by the Independent Television Commission, in January this year ITV was forced to restore News at Ten to its proper home. By which time, of course, the BBC had scheduled its Nine O’clock News an hour later.

In the six months since they went head-to-head, the combined evening news audience for the two channels has – to the great surprise of media commentators – increased by two million. But there is still ill will. ITN accuses the BBC of patronising its audience, and of being austere. The BBC, meanwhile, accuses News at Ten of dumbing down. Although Trevor McDonald no longer does the ‘And finally’ stories about, for instance, the rabbit who prevented burglars from raiding a pet shop, he does go in for rather a lot of matey, two-way interviews with reporters, which have become known in the industry as ‘Well, Trevors’. Trevor McDonald will cock his head slightly to the left and say, ‘Tell me, Julian. What is the situation in Baghdad?’ and Julian will answer, ‘Well, Trevor. . .’ Trevor will then end with something along the lines of, ‘You take care now, Julian.’

The BBC has also accused ITV of dirty tactics in allowing the popular Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to overrun to 10.05pm, so that viewers miss the start of the BBC news and stick with ITV (except on Fridays, when News at Ten starts at 11pm). Its critics also point out that News at When? is usually on only three nights a week, and then for only around 17 minutes (compared to the BBC’s 32 minutes, five times a week). Alluding to the programme’s lightweight reputation, Rory Bremner has taken to calling it I Feel Like News at Ten Tonite. Trevor McDonald is too tactful to say that he finds the truncated version of the programme frustrating. ‘It’s not what it was, but I do think we are fortunate to have it back at ten o’clock. And it has been extended for the election coverage – for what it is worth, because I do think you can swamp people with too much politics.

But we must remember, ITV is a commercial company. Would I like to do a longer programme? Of course I would. But I’m pretty chipper about the way things are going and I predict we will get more time. I appreciate the News at When? joke – a couple of months ago we were all over the place. But the shake-out is still going on: they know you can’t build up an audience having it one night here and one night there.’

Sir Trevor’s appeal as a newscaster is obvious: if we have to listen to bad news, it is somehow easier to accept it coming from him. He makes us feel a little safer in a volatile world. It’s to do with his kind face, his neutrality, and a voice as reassuringly familiar as the chimes of Big Ben. To what does he attribute his popularity? ‘Oh dear. I hate answering questions like this. I think it’s to do with believability. But if a young presenter asked me how he or she could become more believable to an audience I wouldn’t have a clue what to say. I’m glad people do think of me as believable, though, because there is a mortgage hanging on it.’

Trevor McDonald learnt his trade – and refined his spoken English – by sitting at home in Trinidad listening to the BBC World Service. He would imitate the precise delivery of Richard Dimbleby and the mellifluous cadences of John Arlott. He is hopelessly sentimental about the days of Empire, of notions of fair play and paternalism. For this reason, he is as critical of politicians who try to intimidate broadcasters as he is of aggressive journalists. He recalls overhearing a telephone conversation in which Michael Heseltine attempted to bully the ITN news editor into withdrawing an item unfavourable to the Tory party. The editor stood his ground. ‘I felt proud of him for that. It tends to be the editors rather than the presenters who have to deal with that side of things.’ He smiles slowly. ‘Sadly, I’m out of the magic circle. I wasn’t even bullied by Peter Mandelson last time round! And I tend not to socialise with politicians, in order to remain neutral.’

Really? In 1996 Trevor McDonald was reproached by the Independent Television Commission for being too friendly – the Labour Party preferred the word ‘fawning’ – in an interview with John Major held in the sunlit garden of Number 10. ‘John and I were cricketing buddies long before he was Prime Minister,’ he explains with a sigh. ‘We argued more about the merits of the West Indies and England sides than about politics. It was a soft interview that was meant to run at the end of the programme, but for reasons beyond my control, it was put in at the beginning. It didn’t deserve that editorial prominence.’ Civil fellow that he is, Sir Trevor adds that he is not trying to blame anyone, it was just one of those quick judgement calls you have to make in a newsroom. It does still seem to rankle, though. His credibility as a journalist was compromised by it, and being credible is something he has fought hard for over the years.

He began his career on radio and television in Trinidad. His first boss there, Ken Gordon, a leading figure in the Caribbean media, described the young Trevor as ‘an uncomplaining, dependable team player who spoke in a clipped English accent despite never having been to the United Kingdom’. In 1970, to his great satisfaction, he was hired, aged 30, by the BBC World Service and came to work in London. He moved to ITN in 1973 and, aware that he was the station’s first black reporter, made it a condition of his employment that he was not to be ‘sent to Brixton to do token black stories’. Since then he has been a Northern Ireland correspondent, sports commentator and diplomatic editor. His scoops include the first interview with Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison, an interview with Saddam Hussein shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and a memorable profile of Colonel Gaddafi, in which he spent days chasing across the desert, trying to keep up with the erratic Libyan leader.

While on assignment in Uganda, he was caught filming in the wrong place at the wrong time and was bundled off to prison by a posse of policemen. A passer-by, unaware of his predicament, stopped the car to ask whether he could have the broadcaster’s autograph. ‘I was happy to oblige in exchange for a promise that my admirer would kindly call my producer back at the hotel and alert the British High Commission in Kampala that I would not be back for cocktails.’ The anecdote is pure Evelyn Waugh.

It is mid-afternoon, and Sir Trevor is between meetings about the running order for tonight’s programme. He seems more relaxed and gossipy now, leaning forward and asking questions in a hushed voice about my newspaper colleagues (he writes a weekly poetry column for The Daily Telegraph), and going off on tangents about cricket. (He bowls offbreaks but doesn’t play as much as he would like to: ‘Cricket lasts a long time, and it is not conducive to domestic peace to go off on Sunday mornings with the ITN team.’)

He lives in Richmond with his second wife, Josephine, a former production assistant at ITN, and their son, Jack. The couple married in 1986, after Sir Trevor divorced his first wife, Beryl, to whom he had been married for 20 years, and with whom he has two children, Tim and Jo, both now grown-up. He thinks his children from his first marriage suffered from the fact that he was always at work, ‘trying to find a place in an extremely competitive world’. He is endeavouring to make it up with his third child and always attends school events.

The eldest of three, Trevor McDonald had no such problems with his own parents, Lawson and Geraldine. His father was a self-taught engineer from Grenada who moved to Trinidad to work on an oil refinery. He supplemented his income by raising pigs and mending shoes. The family lived in a small house with cracks in the walls that were covered with newspaper. ‘We were peasant folk, really, no one did anything of note. I had the finest parents in the world, though. I had a jammy ride. We were all great mates. My wife never believes this because so few families are like that. But I do think without my parents’ influence we would have done very little [his brother, who lives in Canada, works in radio, and his sister is a lawyer in Trinidad]. I frequently wonder how much of my career is down to me and how much is down to them.’

At Naparima College, a state school, Trevor McDonald’s nickname was Big Eyes. ‘I was boring and stuffy,’ he recalls. ‘I tended to be bookish and serious.’ He would go to watch cricket matches but then lie down in the long grass on the boundary, burying his head in Dickens, Thackeray or Hazlitt. His mother would recite poetry at meal times. ‘I never had formal voice coaching,’ he recalls, ‘but my mother was a stickler for proper speech. It was all right for my parents to be sloppy, of course, but not their children! My mother had a very Christian view of life. Never speak ill of anyone, if you can’t say anything good about someone, say nothing.’

Although he doesn’t share his parents’ religious zeal, he does think some of their values have remained with him. ‘My morals are as bad as the next person’s, but I do think one should try to have standards in life. One should try to be kind, good and gracious. I tend to be strict with my own children. I’m much more authoritarian than my wife. I think children should work at school. I hope Jack enjoys school, too, but he is not going there just for enjoyment.’

The young Trevor McDonald would be reprimanded by his parents if he didn’t greet his neighbours cheerfully in the street. ‘I had a positive outlook and I don’t think it was just because of the sunshine. In the West Indies people did look out for each other. It sounds almost utopian to talk of it now, but there was a great sense of community. No one was turned away for lunch. There was always enough to go round, and it was a sort of expanded family system.’

How is he regarded there today? ‘News of what one does gets across there pretty quickly and is exaggerated wildly. They have absorbed that North American attitude towards success stories, they love them. People say, “I knew him! I used to see him on the way to school!”‘ Lawson McDonald, he adds, could be rather boastful on the subject of Trevor McDonald, television star. ‘When I went back home, he would stand on the verandah of our house with a glass of the duty-free whisky I had just come off the plane with, and he would signal to passers-by to come in and meet me. I would be horrified by this, terribly embarrassed, and I wish I could have been more gracious. I wish I had found a way of conquering my embarrassment for his sake.’

He thinks that his ancestors were given the surname McDonald by a Scottish plantation owner. ‘My children often get bored by my telling them about their ancestors in the Caribbean,’ he says. In his novel The Enigma of Arrival Sir Trevor’s fellow émigré and knight VS Naipaul wrote that his knowledge of England derived from childhood reading: ‘I had come to London as to a place I knew very well. I found a city that was strange and unknown…’ Trevor McDonald’s experience seems to have been similar, and his obvious affection for English traditions has led some in Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community to dub him ‘Uncle Tom’. When he accepted a knighthood two years ago (he had already been appointed OBE in 1992), his evolution as an establishment flunkey seemed complete. Plenty of broadcasters and journalists have accepted titles in the past – Sir Robin Day, Sir David Frost, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne – but unfortunately for Sir Trevor, he accepted his honour at the same time as the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow turned his down.

‘I was totally shocked when I was offered the knighthood,’ Sir Trevor recalls. ‘In fact, I was convinced it was a hoax and went two days without telling a soul. I had sympathy with the view that journalists shouldn’t accept honours. If you heard that the government in, say, Uganda had made a senior journalist Grand Order of Uganda you would be suspicious. So why did I accept it? Well, I thought, “This is a great honour for the West Indian community in this country.” I’m not pretending that I didn’t feel proud, too. I called my sister and told her my dilemma. She said, “Don’t even hesitate. You have to accept it.” I convinced myself – and I don’t need to convince Jon Snow – that this has not compromised my journalistic integrity. My great regret was that my father wasn’t around to see me receive it. He would have thought, “Wow, a son of mine has been given a knighthood in England.” I thought of this and said to myself, “Dammit, I’m going to accept it. It is a big leg-up for all those immigrant families who have made the transition. I get letters from people who say, for instance, “I hadn’t thought of a career in journalism until I heard of you.”‘

But if Sir Trevor has become something of a role model for Britain’s black population, he has resisted attempts to cast him as a spokesman on racial issues. ‘When I’m asked to do overtly political things, I have to decline. But I am approached to do talks at a lot of multi-ethnic schools and I usually accept. I remember when two lawyers came back to our school to give a talk, it made a very powerful impression on me. I can see them now. They wore glasses.’

When Trevor McDonald first tasted fame, Lenny Henry included him as a character in his comedy routine: Trevor McDoughnut. Later, Rory Bremner blacked up to impersonate him (Bremner still features McDonald in his routines but no longer feels the need to wear make-up). Gerald Kaufman once said, ‘McDonald’s supreme achievement is that, while everyone of course knows that is he is black, nobody notices the colour of his skin.’ I ask Sir Trevor what he makes of this. ‘I couldn’t have determined that public perception, but it does correspond to my own experience of the world. There are racial problems in the West Indies, but I don’t remember anyone’s colour ever being discussed aggressively in my house. Race simply didn’t matter.’

So when he came to this cold wet island two years after Enoch Powell made his speech about ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, and at a time when flagrantly racist sitcoms were aired at prime time, didn’t he think he had arrived in a racist country? ‘At first I was surprised that it was made so much of. I could see there were tensions about race, but it took a while for me to understand the politics behind them. I remember before I left Trinidad meeting up with a friend from primary school who said he was going to London; I asked him how he had managed that, and he said, “They sent for me. I’m going to be a bus driver.” I’ve always felt differences over colour are terribly exaggerated. But then I’ve been lucky.’ Pause. ‘Actually, I have become much more aware of my colour lately. It’s probably because of the current debates on race and ethnicity. I think politicians have to be very careful about what they say on the subject of immigration and asylum seekers, as they might appeal to baser instincts which have no place in a progressive, civilised society.’ Stories about racism and brutality – such as the genocide in Rwanda – depress Sir Trevor profoundly. He cries easily over news stories that feature children of his son’s age, and he found it almost impossible to watch the news coverage of the Stephen Lawrence case.

‘Seeing the pain of his parents on television was almost too much to bear. But we have made great strides and, for better or worse, this society is now multi-racial. I think the people who have come here have done a great deal to enrich British society.’ What does he make of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’? He smiles. ‘I always cheer for the West Indies. But I have followed English cricket for so long, and I know people like Ian Botham, David Gower and Graham Gooch so well, I really glory in England’s success, too.’ Such an ugly question didn’t deserve such a dignified answer. But it seems typical of the man. He once walked out of Noel Edmond’s House Party in disgust when asked to read out a series of messages in regional slang. ‘I don’t do this kind of thing,’ he said. ‘I’m not a comedian.’ But he is good-humoured, in a guileless way.

He is, moreover, an avoider of confrontation. ‘I’d never complain in a restaurant. Wouldn’t demand a refund; I find it undignified. I tend to bottle up anger. I think perhaps sometimes I can be a little too equable.’ He always needs to feel that he is in control of his emotions, he adds, which is why he has always steered clear of drugs. ‘Someone offered me a line of coke in America once, and I asked him what it would do. I was told it would keep me awake. Well that, I thought, is the last thing I need.’ He doesn’t always sleep well, it seems, and has occasional anxiety dreams that the bongs are beginning on News at Ten and he’s stuck in the back of a taxi, clawing at the seats.

It won’t be long now before the bongs are sounding for tonight’s programme. So – or should that be ‘And finally’ – what about that ‘tache? Is it just my imagination, or is it getting smaller? Sir Trevor grins and puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘I have taken to clipping it myself lately. This leads to battles with my hairdresser who says any clipping that needs to be done should be done by him.’

Tap papers on desk. Tilt head to one side. Goodnight.


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.