Branson (Sky Documentaries), the four-part biography of Richard Branson written by director Chris Smith, begins at the end. Or at least, it starts with Branson teasing the end. It’s the summer of 2021 and, in his charming sprawling mansion on his private island in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, Branson prepares to take a trip into space. He’s recording a video message to his loved ones, to be played in case he fails to get in and out of the stratosphere alive. Articulating the mourning that might affect his wife, children and grandchildren causes him to repeatedly break down in tears, ruining the recovery.
The sequence has a significance beyond being an incredibly intimate moment that looks good in a documentary. Branson, by reputation, is an inveterate risk taker who has constantly rolled the dice on new ventures when he could have preserved what he already had. Here he is at 70, he still risks everything, even his life. Smith’s series-opening episode cleverly gives us room to wonder if this is something to celebrate.
Billionaires are often branded with a rich-to-rich backstory but, when we hear that they’ve kicked themselves out of their boots, it’s always instructive to look at how shiny those boots were in the first place. After a summary of Branson’s first venture, Student magazine, and how the sale of cut-price records through its classified pages led to the opening of the first Virgin Records store, we return to his childhood. Her sister Vanessa gives a classic description of humble beginnings: “We grew up neither super broke nor particularly rich.” Home video footage shows Branson’s gaff, a country house with a sizable garden. The children were privately educated, their father was a lawyer, and their mother pursued various employment opportunities, including renting spare rooms in the house.
That safety net is the backdrop for the early days of Branson’s record stores, including the mess it found itself in in 1971, when a scheme had records being driven to Dover and stamped for export, but then returned to London and sold there without paying the equivalent of VAT, it was grumbled. The family home was set up as £50,000 collateral for an agreement under which he was given three years to pay the fine, which he obtained by aggressively expanding the business. Branson recounts most of this himself, in fair tones as if the incident were a minor misfortune, perhaps even at the inspirational end: “Everyone rallied.”
So, wanting to turn Virgin Records into a label as well as a retailer, Branson shrewdly recognized that owning a publishing arm and recording studio would create a stronger foundation and so, with the help of a £10,000 loan from his aunt, bought the Manor studio and had his first big hit when an obscure noodler named Mike Oldfield, who was allowed to record there while other artists were taking a break, ended up making Tubular Bells.
That Branson needed courage as well as luck and privilege is not in dispute: Virgin had £500,000 in his pocket when he took his chance with the Sex Pistols, and we see him fend off the cops aboard the chartered boat to play God Save the Queen outside the Houses of Parliament during the Silver Jubilee. Although a BBC ban prevented the single from being an official number 1, Virgin continued to sign many of the biggest acts of the 1980s. But the program continues to entertain the naysayers, including delightful clips from NME editor Neil Spencer, whose archival footage interview finds him dressed in the suit and thin tie of the post-punk indignant, bemoaning the Virgin’s tightly drafted contracts and sniffing the alleged £90,000 payment to sign the abortive salsa-jazz fusion act Blue Rondo à la Turk.
Most intriguingly, Branson’s former close colleagues are often on hand, if not to stick the knife, then at least to speak candidly. “When Richard showed up to meetings in sweaters and stammered a lot,” says Simon Draper, a longtime Virgin Records executive, “people were led to think he was a bumbling good guy, when in fact Richard always had one eye.” very firm on the butt line … Richard was a ruthless businessman.Later, Branson’s sympathetic account – he’s always a sympathetic interviewee – about the impromptu incorporation of Virgin Atlantic is quickly denied by the company’s former vice president.
The first episode of the series concludes with Branson’s (risky!) transition to aviation, meaning his assessment of his next incarnation as a committed environmentalist who also runs an airline is yet to come. But so far, it’s an effective portrayal of the kind of contradictions and coincidences that, when revealed, so often recast the legend of an entrepreneurial hero as more than a myth.