The grandson of Cornwall's most famous writer tells Martin Hesp about turning an obsession into a business
Stories have beginnings, they have middles, but sometimes they simply don't have endings... It's a fact which most writers would not appreciate, but often when something starts, it will flourish and continue to evolve.
This might be the case concerning a story that was originated by Daphne du Maurier. Not a single tale penned by that great doyen of Cornish writers, but her entire body of work – indeed the whole du Maurier brand and heritage...
That, at least, is what her grandson is hoping. Because Ned Du Maurier Browning is now borrowing not only from his grandmother's fictional characters but also from his family's rich history, to tell a new story.
And he is doing it in a most unexpected form. Ned is reinventing the world-famous du Maurier name and all that it entails – not in movies or plays – but in the form of watches. In fact, so passionate is he about the kind of timepieces worn on wrists, that he has remortgaged his East Devon home and just about everything else he and his wife Marianna own in order to kickstart a company that sells the watches he designs.
Du Maurier Watches is a new name on the tick-tock block – it only has two products on the market at the moment and they've only been on sale since February – but both Ned and Marianna are determined that the famous surname will be revived in the guise of quality watches.
"The company is called Du Maurier Watches – the main hook being that my grandmother was Daphne du Maurier," shrugged Ned when I went to meet the couple in their home north of Axminster.
"But it's not all just about Daphne – we're taking the whole heritage of the du Maurier family name," Ned went on. "Daphne's father was Gerald du Maurier, the actor, who had a cigarette brand named after him – and his father was George du Maurier, who was the Punch cartoonist who also wrote the book Trilby, which is where the Svengali character comes from."
Ned has been passionate about watches since childhood. When I say passionate – I mean that he will regularly wear four or five different watches during a single day: "I just love the feel and look of a watch and will sometimes change my watch several times a day depending on what I'm doing," he told me. "I might start the day off with a nice leather strap watch because it's comfortable and easy to read, then go down the garden and put something a little bit more sporty on. It's a little bit more than a fascination."
Daphne du Maurier, as every reader will know, lived in Cornwall and was utterly in love with the coastal area around Fowey where she lived – most famously at Menabilly (which played the role of Manderlay in her novel Rebecca) and then at a smaller house near Polkerris just to the north.
Dame Daphne died in 1989 – and apart from all her famous books she did have a name for being a "frostily private recluse" – so did Ned see much of his famous grandmother? And, if so, was she cold and remote to him?
In answer, the young father of two daughters showed me some photographs taken of him as a boy sitting on his grandmother's knee: "These were taken down at Beuleigh Beach which is where my childhood was with her – not at Menabilly which was the inspiration for Manderlay. She lived in a house called Kilmarth just up the road – just up the hill from Par," explained Ned. "And that was where, from 1970 when I was born, to when she died in 1989, I spent my summer holidays.
"The house was a mini version of Menabilly, but it was huge to me – it had amazing gardens and little cricket pitch, because we were all keen cricketers. Pretty much every summer we'd go down for August and spend a couple of weeks at Kilmarth," Ned continued, obviously happy to relate golden childhood memories.
"Like the weather we've been having over the past couple of weeks – the memories I have were: beach every day. A beach which was only accessible through the back of a garden, down through a cornfield. You could only get there that way, or by boat, so we'd be the only three people down there. Then we'd go to the other beaches at Prid, which I think means Polridmouth, and Par.
"So the one-to-one time we used to have with her was every morning when she'd take the dogs down to Par Beach for a walk – the tide goes out a long long way there. Between my brothers and my sister, we'd take turns to go with Track, as we called her – that was her nickname. I don't know where that came from, but that's what we knew her as.
"So I'd go on a Monday, Rob would go Tuesday, Freddie would go on a Wednesday. Her car was tiny – she had a little old DAF which had forward and reverse, that was it," laughed Ned at the memory of those journeys with his grandmother's two West Highland terriers, Mac and Ken. "The dogs would go in the back and I'd go in the front – and Daphne would drive and sometimes let us lean over and steer down the hill.
"I wouldn't say she was aloof – she didn't seem old in as say 'granny-old'," replied Ned when I asked about her somewhat frosty reputation. "She was physically fit – very capable – did a lot of walking. She was never doddery, until her last year or so. She'd always come down to the beach and watch us play cricket in the mozzie- infested evenings. She used to love that as well."
Did she tell him and his siblings stories?
"Not so much. It was possibly a generation thing – at the house she lived in, all the kids were in one half of the house and my parents and her were in the other. So during the day and later evening we wouldn't see that much of her. We'd all come and say goodnight to her. In the mornings it was better – we would spend time with her and, if we were going down to the beach, that day she'd come. But I never saw her as being aloof.
"It was a bit like being in one of her books," Ned continued. "It was a big house and so quite scary. The big old basement had nine or ten rooms which were never used – there was even an old chapel down there with an altar and everything, which was terrifying. And all the other rooms had this real scary smell of damp – and we'd go down there occasionally and get terrified by my dad suddenly leaping out of a cupboard with a full face mask. They used to love the fact that we were so scared and my dad would play on that – it was a scary house with bats flying around. Magical but scary at the same time."
So what did Ned think his grandmother would make of the du Maurier watches?
"I think she'd love the whole idea. If she was alive today and seeing how the world had progressed, I think she'd be shocked generally – but I think she would be incredibly supportive and find it very exciting seeing characters she'd created coming to life in a watch. I feel extremely lucky to be able to do it – taking the creative route in a different direction now that the writing side seems to have dried up a bit."
Explaining the genesis of the idea, he said: "We were discussing the possibility of opening a watch shop in Lyme Regis which is just down the road – and stocking unusual brands which you couldn't buy on the high street," Ned replied. "There was a possibility of a production of Rebecca hitting Broadway in the States – and I started thinking about ways we could start to breathe a bit of new life into the du Maurier name.
"We thought: 'God – we could actually design a du Maurier watch – how cool would that be?' It could be about all the characters from the books and the other du Mauriers – all this amazing heritage, where you have a story behind each watch.
"I was working up in London so I had a three-hour commute twice a week – and I got my computer out and started obsessively searching anything to do with the watch industry. And then I started designing watches – there must be a thousand different designs going on inside my head.
"We initially wanted to use one of my grandmother's books or characters to form the basis of the first collection – and Rebecca is the most celebrated book with the Hitchcock film.
"We've taken Maxim de Winter as a character and Rebecca as a character (both from the novel) – we've taken everything we know about them and created a back-story. It's almost like taking a picture of Maxim and representing that as a watch," said Ned describing his company's first men's watch. "So we knew it had to be designed with that sort of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, 1930s/40s feel to it – but with a slight contemporary design.
"Rebecca was a bit more difficult because nobody really knows what she looks like – through the book it's all hearsay and idle gossip. We know she was absolutely beautiful and had a vicious tongue and was probably pretty awful, but we used our knowledge of that to create a Rebecca watch. Not what she would have worn necessarily, but something that embodies her. So it has to be very feminine and glitzy – it has mother-of-pearl and rose gold and stainless steel and full cut diamonds."
Du Maurier Watches now have two models on sale in limited editions of 300 (at £445 for the men's Maxim and £485 for the Rebecca) and half a dozen prototypes waiting to be manufactured by specialists in Switzerland.
"I do the design and we have a third party we deal with in Switzerland – we send the designs over and we to and fro for several months," explained Ned. "They come back to us with some of the technical aspects. The exciting bit is when you push the button to get a prototype made – then you get the handmade physical watch in your hand. It's an incredible experience because it can be soul-destroying if there's something wrong with the prototype and it's not quite right – or it is the Eureka moment!"
Ned and Marianna will be hoping for more Eureka moments. They have entered a highly competitive market – as Ned says: "You can buy a good watch from 50 quid to £500,000."
The couple are hoping their watches will capture the public's imagination. Certainly, they have been inspired by one of the greatest imaginations ever to dream in the Westcountry.