We’ve seen a lot of sides to Sir Richard Branson over the years: the bumbling hippy, the reckless stuntman, the cut-throat mogul – but until now, with the release of his new biopic, we haven’t seen him cry.
In the very first minute we see him attempt to record a farewell message to his family from his Caribbean home on Necker Island, ahead of his launch into space with Virgin Galactic last year, to be played from beyond the grave should it end in disaster. The 72-year-old stops, and as tears snatch his throat, springs from his seat and wanders away from the camera. It’s a habit – leaving a conversation mid-sentence – that I’ve witnessed a few times in the 10 years I’ve been interviewing Branson, but usually it’s because he gets distracted, not because his emotions get the better of him.
His long-serving assistant scurries after him and, following a regroup in the kitchen, he returns and just about delivers his lines. “It’s strange, recording something when you’re alive and healthy, knowing that the only reason this video will be seen, is if something goes awry,” he states, chin wobbling. “F---. I will miss you all so much. My only sorrow is that I won’t be with Joan for the rest of our lives together.” More tears, another break, and then: “However, as I wrote in Student magazine 55 years ago, the brave might not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”
We know now, of course, that Branson survived to tell the tale. Indeed, his long-awaited venture into space didn’t even make it into the list of no fewer than 79 “close shaves” he reels off in his newly updated autobiography, Finding My Virginity.
Elsewhere in the biopic, Branson is shown repeatedly stumbling over his words and at one point apologises to the cameraman for “getting tetchy” and tottering off again when questions arise that made him uncomfortable. “He’s not a natural showman,” his sister Vanessa discloses. “He does get nervous.”
It’s a side to him that the public seldom sees, and one he perhaps wasn’t entirely comfortable with being aired. The four-part series, produced independently by HBO and shot over 18 months, covers everything from his childhood in the English countryside to his recent pandemic-induced business calamities, including never-before-seen footage of the moment Branson learns of the Virgin Galactic test flight crash in 2014 that claimed the life of an astronaut. “Just ghastly,” he repeats, over and over, looking lost, head in his hands – another intimate glimpse into the life of an otherwise polished figurehead.
“I was anxious because we didn’t know what line he was going to take,” he tells me from the building site of his newest hotel in New York, ahead of the premiere. “There were bits I wish had made it in that didn’t, and other bits I didn’t think he’d include. Usually they edit out all the stuttering.”
I ask him whether the exuberant front we are used to seeing in most interviews is just a persona. “I’ve been gonged off stage for stammering as a child, to my great humiliation at the time,” he says. “But my mum used to say that being shy was selfish. ‘Stop thinking of yourself,’ she’d tell me, ‘just get on stage and perform.’ To this day, I’m as afraid as the next person when things go wrong. But as an entrepreneur, when I’m facing catastrophe, I have to stay focused despite the fear.”
Catastrophe was a situation that Branson became all-too familiar with when the pandemic struck in 2020. “Covid was absolutely the most disastrous thing to happen to Virgin,” he tells me. “We fought tooth and nail to keep it together. I’ve always thought diversification helps save companies. But it just so happened that every sector we had diversified into got clobbered by Covid: aviation, leisure, hotels, gyms, banking and cruises. Literally every week a new crisis reared its head in one part of the globe or another.”
It was Virgin Atlantic, the airline he launched 38 years ago, “our baby,” he says, “that proved most critical.” The carrier had already experienced a taster following 9/11, when the fleet was grounded for six weeks. “That was bad enough,” Branson remarks. “We were selling everything we could to keep it going. But if someone had told me then, that one day we would be grounded for the best part of two years – on paper I would have said it would be impossible to survive.”
At the time Branson came under heavy criticism for seeking a loan from the Government, something he argues all the American carriers and most of the European ones managed to secure – the majority of them with one per cent interest rates. Virgin was subsequently denied one. “Our team then managed to swing an extremely expensive private loan to keep Virgin Atlantic afloat, but we’re now competing on a very tilted playing field. I also had to sell pretty much all of my shares in Virgin Galactic, which was obviously a great pity.”
Branson’s participation in the billionaire’s space race – which he won on July 11, 2021, after his rocket launch beat Jeff Bezos’s by a matter of days – has also tarnished his reputation in recent years. I ask him what he says to all the naysayers who accuse him of wasting money on going into space when there are so many problems to solve on planet Earth.
“It’s a fair question,” he responds. “But space innovation has already transformed the world in positive ways and it will continue to do so. Virgin Orbit will be putting up the first satellites from European soil hopefully in the next few weeks and those satellites are doing a multitude of useful things – from monitoring illegal fishing to degradation of rainforests.”
He adds: “The people taking aim at me over this are probably doing so from their phones, only made possible by space technology. I don’t think solving the world’s problems by stopping technological breakthroughs is the way to do it.”
Branson concedes that his stance on climate change, which he spends “most of his time now focusing on solving” is something of a paradox given the carbon footprint levelled by his airline and space company.
“I’m still faced with difficult dilemmas,” he says. Two years ago, he was approached by an airline in the US that wanted to collaborate on relaunching Virgin America. “It would have been good for our brand in the States, and I reasoned that if we didn’t do it someone else would,” he notes. But ultimately Branson declined, pledging that while “carbon dirty” businesses he had started in the past would continue to be developed, new ventures with a heavy environmental cost could no longer be justified.
As for his latest projects, the Virgin Hotel New York in which we sit – a 460-room, 38-storey tower in NoMad with grandiose views over Lower Manhattan and across to the neighbouring Empire State Building – is due to open next month. It follows the launch of Virgin hotels in Chicago, Nashville, San Francisco, New Orleans and Dallas. The first of the UK’s properties was Edinburgh, which opened in June, with Glasgow to follow in January.
As for England? “We’re close to securing one in London,” Branson says, though he admits he very seldom visits his motherland. “I spent the first 30 years of my life there,” he remarks. “I’ve often thought that after you’ve ensnared your partner (in his case Joan, who he married in 1989) it’s OK to move away from where you started.”
Before our interview comes to an end, I ask Branson whether he will ever retire, expecting the same noncommittal answer I’ve seen him give to this before. “Definitely not,” he says. “But my focus has changed over the years. About 80 per cent of the work I do now is with my non-profit organisations.” His most recent causes? Hammerhead sharks and the end, globally, of capital punishment.
“When I’m on my deathbed I want to know I have helped other people’s lives,” he concludes. “That might be a selfish view. I’ll leave it to the obituary writers to decide whether I made a positive difference or not.”
Four key travel moments in Branson’s life
His first trip to Necker
Branson purchased the uninhabited island back in 1978, early in his career when he was still building Virgin Records, initially “to woo Joan”, his girlfriend and now his wife.
Drawn by its name, Necker being in the British Virgin Islands, his opening offer was a low-ball one, to say the least. “I by no means had the cash to buy an island,” he recalls. “Luckily, the realtor didn’t know this and offered me an all expenses paid trip to see the islands that weekend.” The price quoted once they touched down on its shores was $6 million.
“Smitten with the unspoilt paradise, and keen to impress my new love, I offered the highest amount I could afford: $100,000. As you can imagine, the realtor was less than impressed, and left us high and dry to find our own way back home.”
A year later, with no other offers made, the owner was desperate to sell. “Virgin Records was in a much better position than it had been a year before, so I quickly agreed to a purchase price of $180,000 (£145,000) – the only condition was that I would need to build a resort on the island within four years.” The deal was struck and thus Necker was born. Today, after much development, it’s the place he and his family, and 175 of their staff, call home.
A slice of African paradise
Dubbed fondly as his “Necker in the bush”, Branson acquired Ulusaba in 1994. “The first time Joan and I visited, it was a shack on a rock,” he says. “We were greeted by two leopards mating – they go at it for three days, quite the challenge – and we stayed in a tiny little makeshift treehouse, wobbling high above the plain. I knew I’d discovered another little slice of paradise.” More than two decades later and after several renovations, Ulusuba today covers 33,000 acres of bush and hosts two camps with 20 rooms among them.
Ulusaba’s name derives from the ancient Shangaan warriors who once occupied it, and means “place of little fear”, a nod to its elevated position over the surrounding landscape. “We’ve have leopards who’ve felt safe enough to give birth right by the lodge,” he tells me.
For Branson, it’s one of only places in the world he devotes to “non-business travel”. It’s where he was when his daughter Holly’s then-fiancé Freddie called to request her hand in marriage, and where Sam later wed his wife Isabella. Most recently, he took his grandchildren on safari here.
His mother’s Moroccan hideout
It was Branson’s mother, Eve, who fell in love with Kasbah Tamadot, a Moroccan property perched in the Atlas Mountains, in the late Nineties, when they were in the region gearing up for his transatlantic hot air balloon crossing. At the time it was owned by an Italian antiques dealer, and Eve persuaded him to buy it over breakfast – “he's always most susceptible then”, she stated at the time. “Mum sat me down with my dad and told me they would not talk to me again if I didn’t buy it there and then,” Branson recalls. “I think they were joking but it did the trick.”
It opened as an opulent boutique hotel in 2005, featuring an array of rooms, suites and berber tents, as well as two floodlit tennis courts, two pools, a billiards room and open-air cinema.
“I took mum back to Kasbah recently, just before she passed into the next world,” Branson tells me. “We visited, as we always did, the women there who her foundation has supported for over 20 years; teaching them crafts such as woodwork, crafts and embroidery. She couldn’t stop smiling, and I loved seeing how happy they were to see her too.” Eve, who Branson named Virgin Galactic’s carrier mothership after, died in January 2021 at the age of 98, from complications related to Covid.
Finally, into space
“There’s a reason so many songs are about the other-worldly feeling of flight,” Branson reflected as he was strapped into his slick seat on Virgin Galactic’s rocket last July, when he made history as the first businessman to make it into space – a project more than 17 years in the making, with input from nearly 1,000 engineers and test pilots. “We went from zero to 3,500mph in eight seconds, and then the silence was all-encompassing,” he recounts. “I had dreamed about this since I was a child, but nothing prepared me for the view of Earth from space. It was pure, unadulterated magic.”
Back on solid ground upon re-entry, Branson was straight into analytic mode. “I’d like to do a couple more flights so we can fine-tune the experience before our first paying customers follow me soon,” he told me last year, of the 700 ticket-holders who have already paid up to $250,000 for the privilege; Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie rumoured to be among them. “It’s the little things that make a big difference with Virgin Atlantic, and this will be no different. For example, it has come to my attention that once you’ve got the parachute on, the spacesuit is such that you can’t take a pee. I’d like to change that.”
BRANSON will be available to watch on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW from Sunday, 4 December. Finding My Virginity, updated with four new chapters, is out now.