The Week In Radio: How Richard Branson grew up and found his wings


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The Independent Culture

When Richard Branson was five years old his mother stopped the car, ordered him to get out and told him to make his own way to his grandparents' house. This, it turns out, wasn't an act of cruelty but an effective lesson in learning how to stand on your own two feet.

Given how Mrs Branson's son turned out, it's a wonder all parents aren't booting their offspring out of their cars as part of their after-school activities. "Off you go, little Byron," you'd hear them say on the hard shoulder of the M25. "See if you can make it to Chelsea by tea time." It would certainly explain why Dave and Sam left little Nancy in the pub that time. It's not such a long way from Buckinghamshire to Number 10, after all.

In Radio 4's Meeting Myself Coming Back, the Virgin king was asked to look back over his life with the help of recordings from the BBC archives where he had been interviewed at pivotal moments in his life. Alas, no one was there to interview little Richard sobbing on the side of the road as his mother sped off, possibly doing loser hand gestures out of the window, though he claimed, not wholly convincingly, not to have been too troubled by the incident. "I don't think they could arrest her anymore for it so..." he said, his voice trailing off.

Despite the programme's terrible title (try recommending it to a friend: "It's called Meeting You... no, Meeting Me... Oh, sod it, just listen to Desert Island Discs") its premise is a neat one, presenting interviewees with evidence of their younger selves and listening to them squirm with embarrassment.

Annoyingly, Branson had no cause to squirm. He seemed as eminently grounded as a twentysomething entrepreneur as he does a sexagenarian zillionaire – at least as grounded as you can be as a man with a history of getting into mishaps with hot-air balloons. There were the well-known episodes: the tax-avoidance scam that landed him in prison for a night in 1971, his knees-up with the Sex Pistols on a boat on the Thames during the Queen's Silver Jubilee, his first botched attempt at breaking the record for crossing the Atlantic. There was talk of cola, condoms, airlines, wedding gowns and other business endeavours, all underlining Branson's ability to magic money out of thin air.

Through all of this, the most overwhelming impression was of a man entirely devoid of ego, who is fascinated by the nuts and bolts of business rather than the glamour of wealth. Even so, everyone has to let off steam from time to time. Talking of his balloon escapades, Branson admitted "there's something in my make-up that's not completely sane." Perhaps after all that time spent number-crunching, launching yourself, Pooh-style, into the skies seems like the only way to feel normal.

For a short period in her early teens the actress Celia Imrie's method of feeling normal came through stringently policing her food intake. As she told Michael Berkeley in Radio 3's Private Passions, she wanted to be a ballet dancer but as she grew too tall for the job her dreams started to fall apart. Despite Berkeley's irksome habit of talking over his interviewees to tell them their own life stories, Imrie was able to recall that it wasn't until she was hospitalised, and saw other women seemingly driven to madness by their eating disorders, that she began eating again. "I am living proof that you can get yourself well," she stated. "I want to insist that everybody knows that."