Branson review – makes you wonder if Sir Richard’s risk-taking is really worth celebrating

Branson (Sky Documentaries), director Chris Smith’s four-part biography of Richard Branson, starts at the end. Or at least, it starts with Branson anticipating the end. It is the summer of 2021 and, in his lovely sprawling villa on his private island in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, Branson is preparing to take a trip into space. He is recording a video message for his loved ones, to be played in the event of him not making it in and out of the stratosphere alive. Articulating the bereavement that could befall his wife, children and grandchildren causes him to repeatedly break down in tears, spoiling the take.

The sequence has significance beyond being an arrestingly intimate moment that looks good in a documentary. Branson, by reputation, is an inveterate risk-taker who has consistently rolled the dice on new ventures when he could have preserved what he already had. Here he is at 70, still risking everything, even his life. The opening episode of Smith’s series skilfully gives us room to wonder whether this is something to be celebrated.

Billionaires are frequently branded with a rags-to-riches backstory but, when we hear that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, it is always instructive to look at how shiny those boots were in the first place. After a summary of Branson’s first venture, the magazine Student, and how selling cut-price records through its classified pages led to the opening of the first Virgin Records store, we spool back to his childhood. His sister Vanessa provides a classic description of humble-ish origins: “We weren’t brought up either super-broke or particularly rich.” Home video footage shows the Branson gaff, a country house with a considerable garden. The children were privately educated, their father was a barrister, their mother pursued various business opportunities, including renting out spare rooms in the house.

That safety net is the context for the early days of Branson’s record shops, including the scrape he got into in 1971, when a scheme involving records being taken to Dover and stamped for export, but then brought back to London and sold there without paying the equivalent of VAT, was rumbled. The family home was put up as £50,000 surety for a deal under which he was given three years to pay his fine, which he achieved by aggressively expanding the business. Branson relates most of this himself, in equable tones as if the incident were a minor, perhaps even ultimately inspirational misfortune: “Everyone rallied around.”

Then, wanting to turn Virgin Records into a label as well as a retailer, Branson cannily recognised that owning a publishing arm and a recording studio would create a firmer foundation and so, with the help of a £10,000 loan from his aunt, he bought the Manor studio and scored his first major hit when an obscure noodler called Mike Oldfield, allowed to record there while other artists were taking a break, ended up making Tubular Bells.

That Branson needed nerve as well as luck and privilege is not in question: Virgin was £500,000 in the hole when he took a chance on the Sex Pistols, and we see him fending off cops aboard the boat hired for them to play God Save the Queen outside the Houses of Parliament during the silver jubilee. Although a ban by the BBC kept the single from being an official No 1, Virgin went on to sign many of the biggest acts of the 1980s. But the programme keeps entertainingly featuring naysayers, including delicious clips of NME editor Neil Spencer, whose archive footage interview sees him clad in the jacket and thin tie of the indignant post-punker, complaining about Virgin’s tightly drafted contracts and sniffing at it having supposedly paid £90,000 to sign the failed salsa-jazz fusion act Blue Rondo à la Turk.

More intriguingly, Branson’s former close colleagues are often on hand, if not to stick the knife in, then at least to speak candidly. “When Richard would appear in meetings in woolly jumpers and stammer a lot,” says longterm Virgin Records executive Simon Draper, “people were seduced into thinking this was a bumbling good guy, when in fact Richard always had a very firm eye on the bottom line … Richard was a ruthless businessman.” Later on, Branson’s cute story – he is a likable interviewee throughout – about the improvised establishment of Virgin Atlantic is immediately contradicted by the company’s ex-vice-president.

The first episode of the series ends with Branson’s (risky!) move into aviation, which means its assessment of his later incarnation as a committed environmentalist who also runs an airline is yet to come. But so far, it is an effective portrait of the sort of contradictions and coincidences that, when revealed, so often recast the legend of an entrepreneurial hero as more of a myth.

  • Branson is screening on Sky Documentaries in the UK and streaming on Binge in Australia.