Balloon goes up on a top-level Virgin deal

CITY DIARY

Horizontal integration at the top of Richard Branson's financial services empire. Tony Wood, the blonde twentysomething responsible for marketing the Virgin Pep, has suddenly taken the plunge with his number two, Rae Canfor. Not known to look a gift horse in the mouth, the young Virgins have accepted the Bearded One's traditional offer to marry on his Caribbean island, Necker, over Christmas.

Mr Branson would normally attend the wedding of two key marketing directors. Unfortunately, (and it falls to us to confirm the disappointing news to the happy couple) the legendary aviator will not be able to join in the festivities. He will be attempting to lose his life in the most spectacular balloon voyage since the Hindenburg had a spot of bother on her final approach.

Which begs the question as to what would happen to the Virgin empire should the unthinkable happen. Mr Branson must have had the devil's own job in thrashing out a key man insurance policy.

Not that this should concern the honeymooners, who can look forward to the run of the 10-bedroom Guest House, with 26 staff to cater for their every whim.

Still, Mr Branson may yet drop in. Those polar winds are notoriously unpredictable.

At least the betrothed can rest assured that there will be no let-up in Virgin's marketing drive. Determined that as many as possible should attend its Christmas party at the Kensington Roof Gardens last night, Virgin Direct sent a minibus to hover outside the National Westminster Bank party in Bishopsgate Hall. Just in case there were any waverers.

Leafing through a battered copy of Charles Forte's autobiography (not the rattling good read the cover would suggest) one can see why the Wontner family fought so hard to prevent the restaurateur from gaining full control of the Savoy. Preserved for posterity on the centre pages is a photograph of the original menu at the Savoy Cafe (no connection to the hotel) which Charles' immigrant father ran in Alloa, Scotland.

The Cafe, which seated 60 people, was on Alloa's main shopping street. And while the author insists it was "kept spotless and the service was willing and friendly'', anything further removed from the synonymous London hotel is difficult to imagine.

The "fancy drinks'' (price 8d) did not run to anything more exotic than a Phoenix club soda and a chocolate pluff (don't ask). Similarly the Auto Smash was not the sort of thing you would expect to see on the menu of a top London establishment. Quite what a Hippodrome Phosphate was is anybody's guess.

On the subject of the Forte bid, it seems that Granada was unable to convince the City that its planned diversification was more interesting than the Budget. Attempts to sell a 4.15 briefing on 28 November to one analyst were met with "a full and frank exchange of views''.

Melvyn the Money Spider leaves the Kleinwort Benson web to return to his original lair at Barclays de Zoete Wedd. The market-maker in smaller companies' shares (his mother would know him as Melvyn Marks) has already left his desk. "The lucky chap has got the month off,'' says a former Kleinwort colleague who professes not to know why Mr Marks is known as the money spider. "It is because he is small, dark and difficult to get on with,'' reveals another acquaintance.

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