To meet Woody Allen in London is to meet a man violently out of context. Imagine stubbing your toe on the Statue of Liberty while out walking the dog on Tooting Common and you grasp the scale of the incongruity. He belongs in New York, he’s synonymous with the place; as he says at the beginning of Manhattan (1979), it’s his town.
I once saw him there, wearing a baseball cap and a lumberjack shirt, marching towards me across a bridge in Central Park. It was six in the morning – I couldn’t sleep – there was no one else around and I was nonchalant about the encounter until the moment he had passed, at which point I began stalking him. A film crew appeared on the opposite side of the lake, he joined them, and so, surreptitiously, did I – and spent the next few hours staring at him, slack-jawed, as he set up shots, played chess with his sound engineer and ate corn muffins. How could I not? For the past three decades he has made a film a year and I, anorak that I am, have them all on video, in chronological order. I even have that series of wilfully beige and morose films he did in homage to Bergman – September, Alice, Another Woman, Interiors – the ones which nobody likes, including me.
In Central Park he was focused and energetic, but cold in the way he directed his actors. In London, by contrast, sitting on the edge of a large sofa in the Dorchester, his 5ft 7in frame seems almost out of focus: slight, spavined, his edges blurred despite the neatly pressed creases in his cream trousers, blue shirt and white vest. It is to do with the paleness of his eyelashes, his freckled skin, his thinning wires of hair and his right eye which, behind black-rimmed glasses, looks lazy and sore. It’s also to do with the way he holds himself. When I ask a question, he cocks his head to one side and leans forward so far he almost slides off the cushion. ‘I-I-I’m sorry,’ he says softly, with that cracked, reedy, much-impersonated Brooklyn-accented stutter. ‘My hearing is dropping a little in my left ear. This is hereditary. I listen keenly and I read lips. If people’s lips are covered, or I take my glasses off, I don’t hear as well.’
I’d been asking him about the ills the flesh is heir to. He is 66, a good age, presumably, for a hypochondriac? ‘Yes, everything falls apart. You, er, you lose your hair and your faculties, and you eventually get a disease from which you do not recover.’ He folds his arms defensively. ‘I’ve always thought [pronounced to-wart] I was falling apart anyway, but as I get older it becomes a more realistic fear.’
Fear: it’s been said that since September 11 we’ve all become Woody Allens. He and Soon-Yi, his wife, live with their two adopted children in a $17 million, five-storey Georgian town house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was in his kitchen when the planes crashed into the towers. As he has always rhapsodised about the New York skyline in his films, did the attack feel almost personal? ‘It was a shock,’ he says with a wheezy, nervous laugh. ‘Such random slaughter. But not a surprise. We always thought that terrorism would show up in one of our cities. But the government was caught napping when it did.’
Before he began shooting his latest film, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, he sued Jean Doumanian, his producer and one of his oldest and closest friends. Allen claimed Doumanian cheated him out of profits – thought to be about $15 million – from his last eight movies. In July she counter-sued, claiming that a ‘self indulgent’ Allen squandered her company’s money by demanding a large salary, chauffeur-driven cars, rooms at five-star hotels, private jets and a 50 per cent slice of his films’ profits. Hasn’t he been put off going to court after his ordeals in the early 1990s (when he and Mia Farrow were involved in a bitter, bitter custody case)? ‘Er, no. No, I’m a normal citizen and if there are matters that have to be solved in court I go to court. No.’
When Mia Farrow, his leading actress in several films and his long time companion, came across pornographic Polaroids he had taken of her (not his) 21-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi, she went berserk. According to Allen, Farrow had threatened to kill him and commit suicide – she had also sent him a Valentine’s card pierced with knives and skewers. Vindictively, it seemed (or protectively, depending on your sympathies), Farrow brought a child abuse charge against Allen (relating to another adopted daughter, Dylan). The police were compelled to investigate, they put together a 200-page report, and Allen took a lie detector test. He counter-sued, ran up legal fees of $7 million and eventually won and lost: all allegations of abuse were dismissed, he married Soon-Yi in 1997, but was banned from seeing Dylan and his natural son Satchel. The judge said Allen was ‘the most opaque of narcissists’, and added that ‘you don’t have a clue about the needs of your children.’ Since the separation, Farrow has adopted four more children – she already had 11 – and has damned Allen in her autobiography (recording that his neurotic solipsism was such that he needed weeks with his analyst before agreeing to change the bedsheets from polyester satin to cotton).
Does he now regret the scorched earth policy he adopted with Mia Farrow in the courts? ‘I, I, I wouldn’t know what you meant by scorched earth policy.’ I elaborate. ‘Ah, OK. It was big and messy and it could have been handled better and had better consequences. But I didn’t have any choice. I was put in that position and I had to respond. Normally I like to handle everything quietly and discreetly and I’m a, you know, a friendly and forgiving private type. But I will always… There are certain situations where you are forced to act.’ He shakes his head. ‘It was a terrible, terrible, terrible situation. My not having access to the children is completely cruel and unfair. Not in their best interests. But these dreadful things happen in life. To balance that I had parents with good longevity [his father lived to 100, his mother 95]. I’ve been healthy. I’ve been blessed with a talent.’
What effect did the scandal have in terms of his commercial success? ‘None! I’ve never had any success commercially! Never.’ Now, now. It’s not quite true. He had box office successes with his two Oscar-winning films Annie Hall (1977) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). ‘No. Annie Hall was the smallest earning Oscar-winning film in the history of the movies. People always ask me, “Why don’t you do any more of those early funny films?” Well, my first, Take the Money and Run (1969), I made for $1 million and it got great reviews and ten years later it still had not broken even.’
Woody Allen’s films may go unnoticed in America, but in Italy, France and Britain they have a devoted following. ‘In Europe I’m idolised, it’s true. I walk down the street and they shake my hand and throw flowers and kiss me. In the United States I’m a bum. It mystifies me.’ He rubs his hands together; hunches his shoulders; gulps. ‘I’ve had this conversation a million times with my producers. They sit me down and say, “What is it? Is it that you are in these films?” Then I would make The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and not be in it and it would still not do any real business. And they would say, “Maybe it is that they only want to see you as this neurotic New York intellectual type.” So I would make a film like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and it would not do great business and then they would say, “Maybe they want to see you in something different, your films are too alike.” So I would make Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and I still don’t get a decent sized audience.’ He blinks repeatedly and nods to himself. ‘Maybe the problem is that my films are like Chinese food. There is no real similarity between an egg roll and spare ribs but in the end it is all Chinese food.’
In 1998 Allen said to Newsweek: ‘If my films don’t make a profit I know I’m doing something right.’ Doesn’t he take a perverse delight in the fact that they aren’t commercial? ‘No, I don’t delight in it. It would make my life a lot easier if they made money. But I do feel that if you are succeeding all the time you are doing something wrong.’
He claims that failure has dogged his career. But after dropping out of New York University, where he studied film, he found early success as a gag writer for Sid Caesar. He then became a successful cabaret comedian, one of his jokes being that he was kicked out of NYU for cheating in a metaphysics exam. He had looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to him. ‘When I was a nightclub comic I used to get these great reviews and club owners would pay me a very substantial salary,’ he says. ‘But then they would see that half the house was empty. They would have to move these big, potted palm-trees around so that the room looked fuller.’
Dr Johnson believed that all censure of a man’s self is oblique praise and this seems to apply to Woody Allen. He talks himself down but only as a strategy, because he so clearly has confidence in his own abilities. And though he has often cast himself as a self-doubting loser in his films, it has always been as an endearing one. He claims his films aren’t autobiographical, of course. Yet the characters he plays invariably share his neuroses and phobias – most of which are genuine, apparently. He prefers darkness and rain to sunshine. He is so claustrophobic he has on occasion taken a 100-mile diversion rather than cross a bridge or go through a tunnel. He has a morbid fear of dogs and deer and a thing about bright colours – which is why he, and the characters he plays, nearly always dress blandly, in green and brown corduroy. And there are enough examples of his own life overlapping with his characters’ to make his claim seem disingenuous. In 1973, for instance, he became convinced he had a brain tumour, as his character does in Hannah and Her Sisters. Or consider the grimly ironic Husbands and Wives (1992) in which his character leaves Mia Farrow’s character for a 21-year-old. Tellingly, he slips into the first person when talking about the characters he plays: ‘I never went back to Hannah.’ Or: ‘Julia left me in that movie.’
Can he understand why people assume his films are autobiographical? He coughs into his hand and grins crookedly. ‘Right, right. I think what it is is that the sensibility is me. The character I am playing has hypochondria and he obsesses about his life and his mortality and he fails in his relations and, in that respect, it is me, because that is what I do in my off-screen hours. But the details of the movies are, 99 per cent of the time, made up. Once in a while there will be something that comes up, like the concept of the brain tumour you mentioned, but that is so exaggerated compared to my real life that it may as well be made up. In real life I’m productive. I’m not totally incompetent. I get up in the morning. I’m not a little weakling – I was a good athlete when I was younger. I work at the typewriter. I practise my clarinet [he still plays with his New Orleans jazz band every Monday night at The Carlyle Hotel in New York]. I’m able to make films and run my film company.’ He smiles wanly. ‘You know, I-I-I I’m not the character in Deconstructing Harry (1997). This guy had a writer’s block, I’ve never had a writer’s block in my life. I wouldn’t know what it meant. This guy was seeing whores, he can’t stop his alcohol, he kidnapped his child. These are things I couldn’t and wouldn’t do, but people think, “So that is how he lives”.’
What about when his character contemplates suicide in Hannah and Her Sisters? Was that based on experience? ‘Not really, no. I would be too afraid to kill myself. I would never contemplate suicide.’ He touches his glasses. ‘No, that’s not quite true. I have contemplated it in the sense that the thought has occurred to me, but that would never have translated into action. I would be too frightened – that is the only reason – to buy a gun and shoot myself.”
I only ask because he is a notorious pessimist and depressive who has been visiting psychiatrists for most of his adult life. ‘I have stopped seeing a psychiatrist now,’ he says nasally. ‘It’s very hard to have a good relationship, and I didn’t for most of my life. Now, though, I am very very happily married and that has been a wonderful thing for me and I’ve got great kids. But, for me, when you get happy then you start to get these awful existential thoughts. When a guy is lonely or miserable he just thinks, “What will I do to meet a girl tonight?” But when you find you are happy with a lovely wife only then do you realise what is in store for you – it is going to end somehow. You are going to die.’
So the trick is to keep yourself as miserable as possible? ‘No, my antidote is always to rush to work and blot out these thoughts by distracting myself. Film-making for me is like therapy, like basket-weaving or finger painting in a mental institution. When I’m not doing that I make sure I watch baseball or basketball or I play my clarinet. If I don’t distract myself I know I will get depressed and anxious and give in to morbid introspection.’
He is terrified of being left alone with his thoughts? ‘Yes. There have been times when I would buy a newspaper or a magazine prior to a five-flight elevator ride because I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts in the elevator for 30 seconds.’
Must be exhausting being him. ‘Let me tell you, when I go for a walk in Central Park on a beautiful day I have to set myself mental tasks, prepare a speech, think about casting. Otherwise I know I will want to run up to people and shake them and say, “Why are you bothering to sunbathe? What is the point of your pregnant belly? Why are you walking your dog? Toward what end? We’re all going to die one day. Am I the only one who sees it? Am I the only person in the concentration camp who knows what is going on behind that big hedge?”‘ He spreads his arms, fingers splayed. ‘I will look around the park and think, “We can cut to this scene 100 years from now and all these people will be dead.” Every 100 years a big toilet will have flushed and a new group of people will be in their place. The Islamic fundamentalists, the baseball players, the beautiful models, everybody who is here now will be gone. All gone. You and me. It is hard to combat this thought. It’s constantly nagging at me. Our seemingly busy busy lives ultimately mean nothing in this cruel and hostile universe.”
Poor Woody Allen: he sounds sincere but, because he has had so much comic mileage from his angst over the years – bleak despair combined with Jewish wisecracking – it is hard to take him seriously on the subject. Does he find this reaction frustrating? ‘Look, I, I, er, I don’t make jokes about these things deliberately. I just saw one day that that was my response to them. I don’t think, “If I make people laugh or make myself laugh that will alleviate the problem.” I can make jokes, that’s all. I’ve always been able to. It is an awful gift.’
One of my favourite Woody Allen lines is: ‘If only God would give me a clear sign. Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.’ I ask him why he can’t take Thomas Carlyle’s advice and just ‘accept the universe’? ‘If I tell you that someone at some point is going to come and shoot you and your wife it’s hard to live with it. It’s a very disquieting feeling. It’s unnerving. You can’t breathe easily and relax. I find it impossible to do.’
We’re all born astride the grave but surely he has a form of immortality through his films. ‘Yes, but as I have said before, it would be nice to live on in the hearts and minds of my audience but I’d rather live on in my apartment.’
I tell him I find his gloomy disposition in real life at odds with the tone of his films, which is often funny, romantic and charming. He presents his audience with these dark existential dilemmas then offers a diversion from them, a consolation: love, he often seems to be saying, is the answer to the question, ‘What meaning can there be to life when death is the end of it?’ ‘Yes, that is the best you can do. I agree with you. To say, “I love you” is the nicest thing, the most meaningful thing you can do in life. That is why my priorities in life are my children and my wife, not my movies. But this is cold comfort. When I’m with my wife and children I think, “This is so impermanent. There will come a point where we have to say goodbye. Love is the best you can do but it’s just not good enough! It’s too little too late. People should be angry instead. Angry at the whole deal.”‘ He pats my arm and grins lopsidedly: ‘I hope I’m not depressing you.’
Even as a child, Woody Allen – born Allan Konigsberg – was visited by what he called the bluebird of unhappiness. ‘Even as a young child, yes. There was a dark cloud over my head in the cradle.’ He was a lonely boy – his sister Letty was born when he was eight – who usually ate alone. His earliest memories are of Nettie and Martin, his volatile parents, arguing. ‘They stayed together out of spite. Did everything short of exchange gunfire.’ Their arguments were usually about money. Martin, who worked in a poolroom, was a spendthrift, Nettie was frugal. The young Woody would escape the tension by sitting in his room teaching himself conjuring tricks (he became an accomplished amateur magician and at one point considered making a living as a card sharp).
He got married for the first time when he was 20 – to Harlene Rosen, who was three years younger. After six years, the marriage ended in acrimony. Allen had taken to joking about Harlene in public: ‘It was my wife’s birthday, so I bought her an electric chair. Told her it was a hair dyer.’ His second marriage, to actress Louise Lasser, lasted three years, ending in 1969. His longest friendship/relationship has been with Diane Keaton, the Californian actress who monopolised the female leads in his early films. She was his live-in companion for three years in the 1970s and when they split up they remained close friends. They still speak on the phone nearly every day and she is, he says, the only person whose critical opinion he really cares about.
He once joked that he never trusts a woman until she rejects him, yet he has always been successful with women, beautiful women at that. Why does he think this is? ‘I never have been.’ Do I have to list them? ‘OK, but very few. I had a wonderful wife in Louise Lasser and I’m friendly with her to this day. And Diane and I remain very close. Mia I had a bad time with but I had some very nice times with her, too.’ Does he speak to her now? ‘No, I don’t, because it ended too sourly. But I thought she was beautiful and a good actress and in many ways a good person, too. In other ways I had bitter disagreements with her. So, yes, I have had some good relationships in my life but I always thought that when I finally became what I always wanted to be, which is attractive to women, it was too late.’ He laughs a laugh that turns into a cough. ‘It was only after I was married, happily married and devoted to Soon-Yi, and older, in my sixties, only then did I sense that when I met beautiful women I could, you know, think, “Gee, I could really have a chance with this woman. I could really have an affair with her or go to bed with her.” And I never had that feeling before. It’s when you’re off the market, I guess.’
I’m sure it is, but could it also possibly be because he is a powerful figure in the film world? As Henry Kissinger said, power is the great aphrodisiac. ‘Yes, it’s possible that all that melds together. I’m a film director and there might be a reason to cultivate a relationship with me because they will get something out of it. But really, you know, I have had a below average record with women.’
A sense of humour, of course, is also a great aphrodisiac. Is there anyone he hasn’t been able to win over, eventually, with his relentless joking and banter? ‘Yes, the American people.’ And on a one-to-one basis? ‘I think when people meet me and talk to me they find me a reasonable person. Not a nasty egomaniac. Interesting on arts and sports and on the good side politically – liberal, you know. I don’t think I put people off one-to-one, just on a mass scale.’
Some who have worked with Woody Allen might disagree with his analysis. ‘Manipulative’ and ‘self-centred’ are two descriptions that have cropped up when his former colleagues have been asked to describe him. ‘The last person to accept blame’ is another. And, though he has seemed cheerful and engaged enough in this interview, the words which are most often used about him are: reclusive, melancholy, and detached. For his part, he considers himself to be drab and once said he felt sorry for his analyst because, ‘Whenever I am on the couch, I bore on like an accountant.’ Self-loathing, of course, is not incompatible with self-belief and tellingly, in the biographical documentary Wild Man Blues (1997), he talked of a chronic sense of dissatisfaction with himself: ‘I don’t want to be where I am at any given moment. When I’m in New York, I want to be in Europe. When in Europe, I want to be in New York.’
He never watches his old films and claims he hasn’t read any of the 40 or so books written about him. ‘I don’t want to waste time thinking about myself,’ he says. ‘And if I watch my own movies I only see what I could have done better.’ Most directors take about four years to make a film. Allen is able to bring out one a year because, in the past at least, he has always managed to find indulgent patrons to back him – and give him complete autonomy over scripts and production. Also it only takes him between one and three months to write a script. This is followed by eight weeks of pre-production and three months’ shooting. To his regret, though, he feels he has never made a great film – by which he means a Citizen Kane, Bicycle Thieves, or Wild Strawberries – and some of his films, such as Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, he actually hates. Has he considered taking more time over his film-making, devoting five years to one project, say, in order to make what he might consider to be a great film? ‘I don’t think I could do it because when I finish with a script, even if I’ve written it in six weeks, I think it is the best I can do. I don’t think, “If I coddle it for a year I might be able to improve it.” I think, “This is great.” I’m completely uncritical of myself as a writer. But when I translate the script to the screen my slovenliness takes over. When I see what I wind up with I think, “Where did it go wrong? I missed by 90 per cent.” It’s maybe lack of perfectionism or dedication. When it gets difficult I give up. I don’t do enough takes and I only do these long master shots all the time because I don’t have the patience for close-ups. People think it’s a deliberate style of mine, but it’s really just laziness.’
He’s praising himself obliquely again. An indolent man could not make a film a year. Nor would a lazy man be rushing round the world promoting his latest film – he has just flown in from Venice, to be out of context here in London, and is just about to fly off to Paris. He looks around the room, points at himself, raises his eyebrows and says: ‘Me?’ He grins. ‘Know something? I’m so lazy, if I get a really good idea but it has to be shot in Texas I throw the idea away – just because I live in New York!’


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.