Nik Powell: Businessman and film producer who capitalised on seismic cultural shifts


Nik Powell, who has died of cancer aged 69, played pivotal roles in developing Britain’s record shops, record labels and film industry. He was a businessman who approached both music and film with a huge passion aligned with a fierce commitment to the bottom line.

Powell was the right age to pick up on and capitalise upon seismic changes in British popular culture. By co-founding the Virgin record shops chain, he helped to launch a revolution on the UK’s high street as the retailer created a shopping experience that embraced hirsute youths and hippie culture. With the Virgin Records label he gave art rock, punk and reggae the kind of promotion few other labels would have considered.

And with Palace Productions and Scala Productions, he helped to develop British film-making alongside championing art house cinema from across the world. From Mike Oldfield to Johnny Rotten, Neil Jordan to Bob Hoskins, many noted British musicians, actors and film directors owe Powell a debt of gratitude.

Powell was born in Great Kingshill, Buckinghamshire, and raised in Guildford, Surrey. His father was in the civil service while his mother was a nurse. Educated at Ampleforth College, North Yorkshire, his closest childhood friend was the son of a family friend, Richard Branson, and from the age of 11 the two youngsters were attempting to launch business ventures.

Where Branson left school at 16, Powell graduated and enrolled at the University of Sussex; yet they continued to try and develop businesses together. While they fell out over Student magazine – Branson saw Powell’s attempt to run it as a cooperative as a hostile takeover – Nik left university at Richard’s insistence in order to develop a new business venture as a mail-order supplier of discount rock LPs.

Thus was born Virgin Records and, when a lengthy postal strike in December 1970 threatened to put them out of business, the pair were forced to open the first Virgin record store above a shoe shop in Oxford Street. Immediately successful, they soon opened branches of Virgin across the UK with Powell overseeing the chain’s expansion.

Powell with his children and Richard and Joan Branson at the UK premiere of 'Backbeat' in London, 1994 (Rex)
Powell with his children and Richard and Joan Branson at the UK premiere of 'Backbeat' in London, 1994 (Rex)

Noting the profits generated by rock albums, starting a record label made sense and the duo enjoyed astonishing luck when their 1973 debut album release, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, became an international hit. In 1977, understanding that punk rock was the new game, Virgin signed the Sex Pistols after the band were dropped by both EMI and A&M. Virgin quickly became the foremost punk/new wave record label.

By 1980 Powell was pushing for Virgin to get more involved in showing, distributing and producing films. Branson was initially supportive of Powell’s enthusiasm for film and video, but by 1981 disagreements on the subject led to the demise of their partnership.

Powell sold his 40 per cent stake in Virgin to Branson for £1m and approached Stephen Woolley, the 25-year old manager of the Scala cinema in Kings Cross, about going into business as Palace Video. Initially, the duo released on video the cult and art-house films the Scala championed. Developing Palace Productions, Powell and Woolley produced their first film, Neil Jordan’s 1984 adaption of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves. The film did well and the duo then backed Jordan’s 1986 hit Mona Lisa, although the company stumbled that same year with Julien Temple’s costly flop musical Absolute Beginners.

Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson in ‘The Crying Game’ (1992) (Kobal/Rex)
Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson in ‘The Crying Game’ (1992) (Kobal/Rex)

Palace continued producing films until debts finally forced the company into bankruptcy in 1992 – the year their production of Jordan’s The Crying Game was nominated for six Academy Awards (winning Best Screenplay). Powell and Woolley would next set up Scala Productions, again producing independent British films with low budgets but high production values.

Powell chaired the European Film Academy from 1996 to 2003. He then served as director of the National Film and Television School from 2003 to 2017. He continued to produce films, ensuring he has 61 IMDB credits as an executive producer – his last film being the 2019 Macedonian feature Willow. He was married twice, firstly to Merrill Tomassi and then to the pop singer Sandie Shaw, both marriages ending in divorce. He is survived by his two children with Shaw.

Nik Powell, film producer and businessman, born 4 November 1950, died 7 November 2019

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