PUBLISHED: 17:23 11 September 2013 | UPDATED: 11:13 17 September 2013
With her film-star daughter Naomi Watts playing Princess Diana in new movie ‘Diana’, Rachel Buller spoke to Burnham Market’s Miv Watts ahead of the film’s release about her extraordinary life mixing Norfolk style with a touch of Hollywood glamour and the family’s idyllic childhood memories in the county.
Set above the fishmongers, nestled in Burnham Market’s bustling high street, is Miv Watts’ Design.
The shop is a wondrous maze of rooms, all full to the brim with the most extraordinary mix of furniture, fabric, lamps, pottery, art and ornaments.
Its colour, character and humour are ultimately the perfect reflection of Miv herself.
Great company, full of style and fun, Miv speaks proudly of her family - including her actress daughter Naomi Watts, who is currently starring as Princess Diana in the controversial film about the last two years of her life and last year recieved her second oscar nomination for her role in critically acclaimed film The Impossible..
Splitting her time between Norfolk, Australia, France and New York, Miv’s Burnham base manages to combine an exciting global feel with the welcoming warmth of old fashioned home comforts.
Her daughter Naomi and her son Ben, an acclaimed photographer, live in New York and she admits they would like her to move there, especially to spend time with her grandchildren.
“I just don’t know if my sensibilities are very akin with America,” she laughs. “We lived in Australia when the children were young and have a house in Byron Bay, but I am not ready to go to Australia to live either.
“I will go there in my dotage but while I am still inspired by the architecture and artistry of Europe then I will be staying right here.”
She spends a great deal of time at her house in France, drawing inspiration for her work which is internationally recognised. She is currently writing a book giving tips and advice on interior design.
“It is about being truthful about your home. We have lost our individuality and it makes me sad. If something means something to you, then it is irrelevant whether it is fashionable or not. If you can’t be yourself in your own home, when can you be yourself?”
Her work ranges from selling one-off pieces to customers browsing her eclectic shop to the major refurbishment of properties – including work on the Holkham estate. She also loves scouring the world sourcing special pieces for people.
Miv – short for Myfanwy – remains tight-lipped about her client list, but it undoubtedly includes a fair number of famous faces and places. Her first husband, the late Peter Watts, was road manager for Pink Floyd and her stories are entertainingly peppered with references to famous names.
So it was little wonder that both children followed an artistic direction – although she admits that Naomi becoming an actress was a surprise.
From early appearances including in the TV series Home and Away, Naomi grabbed the public’s and critics’ attention in the chilling Mulholland Drive and the horror The Ring, before being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 21 Grams with Sean Penn. She played the role made famous by Fay Wray in the 2005 remake of King Kong, and has worked with a wide range of actors including Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Craig and Leonardo DiCaprio, in his recent film J Edgar.
“She decided to take acting lessons and at the time she was working as a stylist on a magazine in Sydney. She was very good at her job so I never had any inkling that she wanted to actually be an actor as a career.
“I was so wanting to be on stage or in front of the camera myself I obviously overlooked my child’s talent,” she says, with a self-deprecating laugh.
It is clear that Miv worries about the emotional impact of some of the roles her daughter takes on, such as 21 Grams, in which Naomi played a housewife whose two young daughters and husband are killed in a car accident.
“I am not worried ever about the performance she will give. But I do worry about her. When I saw 21 Grams, I couldn’t speak. I was just stunned by it. I thought this is my own daughter and I had no idea all that was in there.”
The opening of her forthcoming film Diana has seen Naomi thrust well and truly into the limelight – and taking on the role of the iconic princess was something they were all very anxious about.
“She is an actress of great integrity, but obviously I am concerned about how she will deal with attention the role will bring,” she says carefully. “In some ways she is in an impossible position. People felt so strongly about Diana.
“But the film tells a story that hasn’t really been told and will also be focusing on her landmine work. Naomi tells me it is very poignant. An actress’s job is to get in to the part and I do know she really fell in love with Diana.”
Miv’s own move to interior design was almost an accidental one.
“I came back to the UK from Australia, the film industry was on its knees. My friend had just split up with her husband Dave Gilmour (of Pink Floyd) and had bought a house so I offered to do it up for her. I just loved it and stuck with it.”
Her love affair with Norfolk began many decades ago when her children were little and the family would come to stay with old friend Johnny Byrne, the late TV scriptwriter – whose wife, Sandy Byrne wrote a column for EDP Norfolk Magazine for many years.
“The kids just loved it here. We lived in London and I would pile our stuff in the car at 10pm on a Friday and just go. It was really magical. We would get to Thetford Forest, wind down the car windows and the smell of the forest was like nothing else.”
Miv’s decision to base herself in the county was partly down to her longterm partner Mike Gurney.
“I bought fish from him in the 1970s, from his stall on the side of the road in Brancaster, and I thought who is this man selling fish in his underpants?
No, really he was in his pants!” she laughs. “Then I ran into him again at a dinner party some years later and it went from there.”
Fabulously down to earth, she is keen to insist her life is not nearly as glamorous as it may sound, and it is the simple things which ultimately give her the most pleasure, something she has instilled in her children.
“Naomi came up for a night recently with her boys, Sasha and Kai, and Mike took us all shrimping. It was just a joy seeing the children sliding in mud on their bottoms, they had the most amazing fun.”
She will soon be heading back to New York where she is helping work on Naomi’s new apartment, and she laughs about the dramas of a motherdaughter relationship.
“When she bought her first apartment in New York she wanted me to see it. I thought it was hideous and told her. She was very upset with me, but anyway, she decided to sell it the very next day, without ever living in it. I did feel bad, but she made a profit,” she laughs.
As we say goodbye, we talk for a moment about the paparazzi attention Princess Diana received before her death and Miv recounts her own experiences at being followed by the photographers in New York while with Naomi, her partner, the actor Liev Schreiber, and their children.
“That’s what I love about Naomi though, she just has her feet planted so firmly on the ground, she is not bothered by it all,” she says.
The Norfolk princess
When the first photographs of Naomi Watts as Princess Diana were released the physical similarity between these two women, both with strong Norfolk links, was striking.
The big budget film Diana tells the story of the two years leading up to her death in August 1997 and focuses on her relationship with surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, played in the film by Lost star Naveen Andrews. Of course, Princess Diana had a very special place in the hearts of the people of Norfolk, having spent much of her childhood living in the county. She was born in Norfolk on July 1, 1961 at Park House, on the Sandringham Estate. The youngest daughter of the Viscount and Viscountess Althorp, she was educated at Riddlesworth Hall preparatory school, near Diss. Despite her parents splitting up when she was six, she remained at Park House and along with her sisters and brother, Diana would often be seen on outings with her father. It was reportedly while on a ploughed Norfolk field during a pheasant shoot that she first caught the eye of Prince Charles. Her affection for Norfolk remained until her death and she actively supported many charities in the county and retained many friendships from her local school days.