'The day Richard Branson saved my life' 

Virgin co-founder and film guru Nik Powell talks about rock chicks, flicks and fits. 

"I remember having a fit outside a hotel in New York," says Nik Powell, co-founder of Virgin Records, who also has epilepsy. "When I finally came to, Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer of the Pretenders, was looking over me.”

You'd think this was the stuff of dreams: losing consciousness and waking up to see a rock legend. But it was just another day for Nik.

In the early 1970s, Nik set up Virgin Records with Richard Branson. It started out as a small mail order business, and the rest is history. He then turned his magic touch to films, as the executive producer on movies including Fever Pitch, The Crying Game, Little Voice and Absolute Beginners. His most recent film was Ladies in Lavender, starring Dame Judi Dench.

In his latest role, as the director of the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Nik is as busy as ever. He has never let epilepsy hold him back.

Nik's health problems were triggered by an accident when he was eight years old. He crashed his dad’s moped into the garden wall, injuring his head, and the fits began. "My first ever fit was in bed," he says. "I don’t remember much apart from waking up to find my family fussing around me and feeling disoriented and sick."

For the next 30 years, he had similar seizures every few months. Nik controlled his fits by taking barbiturates (sedatives), but even on medication he used to have four to five fits a year. As a child with epilepsy, Nik says his worst problem was remembering to take his medication three times a day. He was also bullied. "Some kids gave me stick for my epilepsy," he says. "But I would simply laugh at them and point out all the famous epileptics from history, including Caesar, Napoleon, Dickens and Van Gogh."

He now claims to be an expert on hospitals around the world. "The Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in LA sticks in my mind," he recalls fondly. "I enjoyed being surrounded by the good-looking young nurses in short skirts and bobby socks. Perhaps they allow only pretty nurses to work in Hollywood!"

Nik is adamant that having epilepsy has never prevented him from doing anything he wanted in life. He puts his determination down to his parents. "My mother was a nurse in the war, so had witnessed some horrific stuff. She wasn’t scared by my epilepsy as I know some other mothers are. My parents didn’t want epilepsy to affect my life, plus I was one of five children so they probably weren’t too worried about losing one!

"On another occasion, at the Virgin offices, I fell through a plate glass window. Richard Branson thought I was a goner because I was cut all over. There was blood everywhere. I don’t remember any of this, but apparently Richard had everything cleared up in seconds. He just sprang into action."

About 10 years ago, Nik's seizures stopped entirely. He is now off his medication.

So what's next for Nik? "Well, I would love to make a film on epilepsy," he say. So watch out for it at a screen near you, because Nik Powell is a man who makes things happen.

Photo of Nik Powell

Page last reviewed: 25/11/2014

Next review due: 25/07/2017