In the opening moments of the HBO documentary series “Branson,” Richard Branson looks into the camera to say goodbye.
“It’s always strange recording something when you’re alive and healthy,” he said, “knowing the only reason this video will be seen is if something has gone awry.”
Branson, a serial entrepreneur whose businesses include the aerospace company Virgin Galactic, has bid farewell before when he thought he needed to prepare for the worst — “I’ve written letters to my children and my grandchildren on a number of occasions,” he said in a phone interview last month — but in this case, it was 16 days before he tried spaceflight.
Even though that 2021 trip was a success, the footage didn’t go to waste. It made its way into “Branson,” a four-part series that covers his life and career, including his founding of the Virgin empire. Talking about his life, he believes, is part of the mission.
“Your life is not wasted if you’ve learned a lot and you’ve shared it,” he said in the documentary. “If you’ve learned a lot and you don’t share your life, I personally feel that your life is wasted somewhat.”
Here, Branson shares the people who have inspired him, the books he returns to and why he keeps losing at tennis. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. “Peter Pan” I found the “Peter Pan” story as a kid and thought it was a magical story. Being able to just flap the arms and fly has been my most recurring dream.
2. Forgiveness It was an honor to be able to spend quite a bit of time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And one of my favorite books is Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” I think that the overriding lesson that the two of them taught the world was the importance of forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that they set up in South Africa was completely and utterly remarkable.
3. Grandchildren The best present I ever received was when my grandkids put on a show for me, which they performed in the middle of the dining room table. Shows from kids, and then grandkids, are often the best presents.
4. “Biko” I was in South Africa with Nelson Mandela when they unveiled a statue of Steve Biko, a Black activist who was killed in a prison cell by white people during apartheid. After Mandela made his speech, I managed to get the microphone off him and handed it to Peter Gabriel and suggested that he just sing his song, “Biko,” without any instrumentation. The streets were filled with people, and every one of them sang along with him.
5. “Swallows and Amazons” As a very young kid, I loved the Arthur Ransome novel “Swallows and Amazons.” It’s about a group of children having adventures in England. Now I read it to my grandkids. It’s a beautiful book.
6. “Mare of Easttown” Kate Winslet ended up marrying into our family — married my nephew. I think her best performance ever was in “Mare of Easttown.” It’s extraordinarily powerful that she can do a Philadelphia lady and do it so well. I hope she makes a follow-up on that.
7. “Sharkwater” A strong documentary can really wake one up. There’s a brilliant documentary called “Sharkwater,” which the late Rob Stewart made to campaign against the mass killing of sharks and other species in the ocean for things like shark fin soup. After I saw it, I started spending a lot of time campaigning to get sharks protected.
8. Joe’s Stone Crab I’d rather swim with the fish than fish for fish these days, even though that sounds a bit “Godfather”-ish. When my wife, Joan, and I are in Miami, we like to eat at Joe’s Stone Crab. It’s got the best fish and crab and a lovely atmosphere as well.
9. Chess I play lots of chess. And I like chess boards, which you’ll find around every corner of our home. I like boards to be simple, not the Balinese pieces where I don’t know which one is the queen and which one is the king. I started playing with my grandkids when they were quite young, and I let them beat me all the time to keep them interested. But my 7-year-old grandson has been taking lessons, and it was tough going recently, so I decided to beat him. I think he’s now at an age where he’ll want to come back for more.
10. Tennis I play every morning and evening with a tennis pro. It’s a good way of being humble because I get beat, morning and evening, every day.