Co-founder of Virgin Records

Born: November 4, 1950;

Died: November 7, 2019

NIK Powell, who has died aged 69, was a British businessman and educational director who had a huge impact upon both the British music and film industries. With Richard Branson, he was the co-founder of Virgin Records, which went on to become a huge global brand; in the 1980s, he and Stephen Woolley founded the successful and acclaimed film distribution and production company Palace Pictures (and later Scala Pictures); and from 2003 until 2017, he was the director of the National Film and Television School (NFTS).

With Virgin Records, Powell (with co-founders Branson, Simon Draper and Tom Newman) was a leading and active participant in the label’s founding as a home for 1970s prog, from the huge success of 1973’s extraordinarily successful debut release Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, to subsequent high-profile releases of the decade by prog artists including Tangerine Dream, Faust and Gong.

Then in 1977 Virgin made possibly its most audacious PR coup, with the publicity stunt signing of the Sex Pistols, anti-authority bête noirs of the British press to such an extent that they had just been dropped by their first label EMI.

Branson, ever the gleeful showman – his own autobiography Losing My Virginity contrasting Powell’s seriousness as a businessman with Branson’s own demand to be having fun at all times – took the public lead on such things, but in the background Powell’s major concern was the expansion of their retail business, including the launch of the first Virgin Megastore in 1976.

Although the Virgin brand – and Branson’s public persona – went on to become an everyday part of British life through interests in everything from planes to trains, Powell sold his share in the business to Branson at the beginning of the 1980s and remained within the arts.

Spotting a similarly energetic figure to Branson in Woolley, who in five years had gone from cinema usher to director of his own repertory cinema in King’s Cross, the Scala, Powell teamed up with him as financier to launch first Palace Video in 1981, and then Palace Pictures.

The aim of each business was to distribute the kind of arthouse and foreign language films seen at the Scala through video and cinema, respectively, and they saw early success and acclaim with films including David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple, and numerous titles by Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Peter Greenaway and others.

Palace Pictures also moved into production in its own right, first with Neil Jordan’s acclaimed The Company of Wolves (1984), and later with further Jordan hits Mona Lisa (1986) and the Academy Award-winning The Crying Game (1992), as well as home-grown British films including Absolute Beginners (1986) and Scandal (1989). In every case, Woolley acted as hands-on producer with Powell credited as executive producer.

When both Palace Pictures and the Scala folded after the recession of the early 1990s – a personal tragedy for Powell – the pair returned with Scala Pictures, whose successes included Backbeat (1994), Fever Pitch (1997), Shane Meadows’ debut Twenty Four Seven (1997) and Little Voice (1998). In 2003 Powell became – at the request of the chair of the board of governors, Michael Kuhn – the director of the NFTS in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and although Scala remained a going concern, Woolley departed to found his own production company with his partner Elizabeth Karlsen.

Although Powell continued to produce lower-budget films, the legacy of his later life will be the unqualified success of his transformation of the NFTS from its run-down former site with new, state-of-the-art buildings, an expansion in courses offered and an increase in full-time student numbers to 550 upon his departure in 2017, from 200 just five years before. He also increased the prestige of the establishment by securing big names for masterclasses, and won an Oscar nomination for student Sharon Colman’s animated short Badgered (2005).

“For me, a film school is like a film,” said Powell on his departure. “The first thing is to put together a great project, a great product, that attracts money… you have to make yourself look sexy vis-à-vis the competition.” It was an approach which served Powell well in every venture he undertook, which included chairing the European Film Academy from 1996 to 2003. In 2017 he was awarded an OBE.

Born in Buckinghamshire in 1950, near the site of the NFTS, Nikolas Mark Powell was privately educated at schools in Surrey, Worcestershire and Yorkshire, and studied at the University of Sussex for a year, until childhood friend Branson convinced him to team up in the latter’s earliest business ventures. The most successful of these was a cut-price mail order record sales business which the pair partnered on in 1970, with a postal strike the following year convincing them to open the Virgin Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill Gate, a haunt for local hippies.

A year later, Branson convinced an Oxford Street shoe shop to let him use their upstairs room to launch the flagship Virgin store, beginning his and Powell’s career in earnest.

Powell’s first wife was Merrill Tomassi, sister of Branson’s first wife Kristen, and from 1982 until their divorce in 1995, he was married to the singer Sandie Shaw.

He died in Oxford, having received treatment for cancer, and is survived by he and Shaw’s children Amie and Jack.