Is all well in Sir Richard Branson’s garden? The billionaire invited 200 guests to his Oxfordshire home yesterday for the launch of new television channel Virgin 1.
An inebriated band of journalists, TV buyers and other media hangers-on enjoyed live rock music and fairground rides (one poor media executive smashed his Blackberry while riding on the bumper cars).
A sly sneak round Branson’s extensive grounds offered no real clues into the mind of the magnate, there was no rosebud to stumble upon in the bushes. It was all manicured lawns, tennis courts and a heated swimming pool, just what you would expect of any wealthy businessman’s pad.
So if not in Kidlington, then, where is the heartland of the Virgin brand? Last week, Sir Richard waved goodbye to the chain of Virgin Megastores which have, over 30 years, become the three-dimensional expression of Virgin-ness on 100 UK high streets. They were unceremoniously sold off to management and will be renamed Zavvi in a move that appears not so much a management buyout as a Branson sellout. The stores were the rock ‘n’ roll hinterland of the Virgin brand and dumping them appears to kick away one of the foundational pillars of the Virgin myth.
Still, the strength of Virgin lies in its uncanny powers of re-incarnation. As its spirit departs the high street (where music has been killed off by online and mail-order) it is being re-born in the ether of Freeview. The launch of Virgin 1 proves that the do-it-yourself ethos is still very much alive in Branson’s empire. The station has a thrown-together feel to it, not so much a garage band as a garage TV station, something quickly dreamed up after the infamous spat with Sky led to Sky One being withdrawn from Virgin Media.
That’s not to say that V1 will not have its appeal. However clunky, it brings a bit of Virgin edginess to the airwaves. Who won’t be tuning in to its flagship drama The Riches? The tale of a bearded chancer (Eddie Izzard) who uses his nous to acquire for his family a huge house with fabulous grounds has a familiar ring to it. It certainly sounds like “proper telly”, as V1’s ad slogan tells us. From there, though, the schedule goes somewhat downhill, though the station’s management promises that things will improve over the next year or two.
In truth, the Virgin brand looks rather dated. Yesterday’s fairground grind was a 1950s version of entertainment. The hotdogs and ice cream on offer were hardly in keeping with the healthy eating fads of this decade.
But Virgin has ditched its rock ‘n’ roll roots and how long its media presence will survive is anyone’s guess since Virgin Media is likely to be sold off. Branson says it is “extremely unlikely” that the Virgin branding will be withdrawn from the service, though he may find such decisions slip from his control.
With Virgin Galactic promising to blast people into the void in 18 months’ time, the brand can aspire to a timeless immortality, irrespective of its earthly form. This will surely be the final frontier for the Virgin brand and Branson will eventually be able to retire to his garden and neatly trim his lawns. And his beard.