...or how I finally got to talk to a top tycoon, by GEORGE FREW

You get to interview Richard Branson only after your fingertips are bloody from punching in legions of phone calls and your patience is stretched thinner than Oxford United's back four.

Still, by the stage you manage to tie Oxfordshire's favourite tycoon down to a time and a place, you are at least on first name terms with many of his 23,000 staff.

The time was 12.15pm, the place the Virgin Megastore (where else?) in Oxford's Cornmarket where the nation's most popular businessman was signing copies of his account of the first 48 years of his eventful life (Losing My Virginity).

Beaming grannies, awkward teenagers, grown men, delighted women and kids turned out to have their copies of the book personally autographed by Richard.

He has a pulling power some rock stars would envy.

The task completed, he emerges from an upstairs office, shakes my hand and leads me on a tour of corridors and stairs down to where the big Saab and its driver, Big Roy, are waiting to bullet us down the motorway to Gloucester and the next book signing. This is the only way to interview Richard - go on the road with him. He is as recognisable as a rock star, too - which is probably fitting for a tycoon whose empire was launched on the back of the best-selling album, Tubular Bells.

Celebrity doesn't worry him - he wears it as comfortably as his designer jeans and open neck shirt.

As we sweep through the city, he says: "99.999 per cent of the time, people are delightful. When I am on the bus, Tube or train, I love it when people talk to me. That's the good thing about being recognisable.

"In the last hour at Oxford, 30 new projects have been brought to my attention. My only problem is not having the time to give people, or giving them 30 seconds each, but I am one of the luckiest people alive. I have a fascinating life and I am enormously fortunate. I enjoy every second of it all."

Richard Branson's popularity with the general public really does have to be seen to be believed. People love him because what you see is really what you get. There appears to be no front or side to the man.

YHe clearly enjoys his fame and his wealth and he loves people in return but you do not become this succ- essful, however, without a steely core - the Virgin King is experienced in the ways of war.

Witness his court case against British Airways and their famous 'dirty tricks' campaign.

BA ended up issuing a fulsome apology and half a million quid in damages. "One of the happiest moments of my life was walking out of that courtroom realising we had won," he says."It had been so unpleasant. It was frightening - they hit us below the belt and tried everything to push us over the cliff. "There were people, with families, working for us whose jobs were at stake. The Gulf War was raging and fuel prices were soaring. We were at our weakest point. And that victory was really the turning point for Virgin.

"From that day on, we climbed over the wall. I can socialise with most of my competitors but I wouldn't waste my time with the top people at BA.

"One of the saddest aspects was how many of their people rang up to wish us well."

As we cruise through Cheltenham, the lights are against us. The car windows are open and a gang of schoolkids peer in at Branson.

You can almost see the thought travelling across their minds. "Is it him?" He waves and asks them how they are - and makes their day. "That's nice," he says.

The Branson dress style is often commented on. He has got an answer to that too. "I can never understand why companies impose suits on people," he muses, before telling me how much fun he is having with Virgin's move to compete with the High Street banks.

"Can you imagine," he chuckles, "we could have an ad campaign which said 'The people who brought you the Sex Pistols now bring you Virgin Banks."

Richard Branson laughs a lot - and he laughs easily and there will be those who say that he has it easy and consequently has a lot to laugh about. The money, the fame, the big house and his family Joan, Sam and Holly. "Success and wealth should bring you the freedom to choose but it also brings respon- sibility. Sure, I could push off and go round the world but that would be a waste.

"In the last five years, Virgin staff have gone from 3,500 to 23,000. Last summer, we held a staff party for them at Kidlington. It lasted eight days. The neighbours were very good about it." Ask him about his next adventure - for we are certainly in the presence of perhaps one of the last truly great adventurers here - and he tells you about his plans for the telephone industry and his musings on the pharmaceutical business: "Is it right that the wonders of Viagra should cost £10 a pill - or can we do it for 20p?" But there are rules. "If we go into something, it must be good for Virgin - for the reputation, the name and the staff and we have to be able to pay the bills at the end of the year.

"We are not a charity. In two to three years' time, Virgin Trains will be the best in Europe. We are not there yet but we will get there."

On an impulse, I ask him how much money he has on him. He laughs, then says: "One of the sad things about this life is once you have made some money, you don't need it any more. It gets to the stage where you are saying, 'No, no, let me pay!'

Richard Branson has been working for himself now for 33 years. As it says in his book, his creed has always been "Screw it, let's do it."

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.