Sky Documentaries’ new series about Sir Richard Branson runs to four hours, but it’s quite possible its best moment will turn out to be the first minute. We open 16 days before Branson, a man in his seventies, is going to blast off in to space. Just in case – because rocketeering is risky – Branson sits down in a breezy room on his private island to record a video to be played back to his family should he die. He talks about his life in the past tense, stutters and then has to stop. He’s crying. “Sorry,” he says to the cameraman, “this is bizarre.”
Bizarre it is, particularly because it comes from a man who, the rest of the documentary makes plain, is a master of self-fashioning. Chris Smith’s film jumps back and forth through Branson’s life and career, finding parallels between, for example, the hurricane that hit his Necker Island Shangri-La in 2017 and the financial hurricane that hit his record company back in the 1970s. But only once, at least in the opening episode, do we see Branson drop the mask on camera. The paths of glory lead but to the grave and all that, and it’s remarkable to see Branson floored by the thought of a world without him in it. That moment aside, the first part of Branson is very much the story of his life told on his terms.
That’s not to say it’s a puff piece – I’ve watched further episodes and this is merely setting the groundwork for a grittier cross-examination to come. Nonetheless, it’s made abundantly clear that Branson’s genius, if it is that, has been to surround himself with brilliant people. And every one of them says that underneath the goatee beard and the woolly jumpers Branson is absolutely focused on the bottom line.
That, of course, runs contrary to the man that Branson would prefer us to think of – the adventurer, the iconoclast, the eccentric; the instinctive risk-taker who called one of his books Screw It, Let’s Do It. That’s all in here too but part of what makes this series so compelling is the subtle, unspoken tug of war over who’s controlling the narrative. Watch carefully and you’ll see that director Smith never quite lets Virgin’s marketing operation have the reins.