If divisiveness is a measure of the quality of a piece of work, then Ian Denyer’s final entry in his Perfume documentary is probably the best of the series. Whilst presenting the story of the revived Grossmith’s initial forays into the glittering shopping malls of the Middle East, it charts the development of a new Axe (aka Lynx) body spray for the Brazilian market and touches on the extent to which perceptions of scents are affected by cultural conditioning. In other words, after tackling ideas of tradition in episode 1 and exploring perfumery as a form of self-expression in episode 2, it broadens the scope of its central topic and questions viewers’ definitions of it.
Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that last week’s broadcast has been met with strongly contrasting opinions from people who feel the hour didn’t devote sufficient time to what they consider to be relevant issues. But the truth is that the world of perfume encompasses an industry that is much larger – and much more lucrative – than the one which produces the fine fragrances advertised in magazines and sprayed to death by pushy sales assistants. It’s also a world that, currently, doesn’t appear to have as many devotees in Europe as it does in other sectors of the globe. So as far as I’m concerned, the decision to focus the episode on how Europe and America try to woo the rest of the world is laudable.
When seen in this light, Ann Gottlieb’s apparent readiness to accept the endorsement of one small focus group of young Brazilian men – after a first group rejected her product! – provides a fascinating (and depressing) glimpse into the machinery that drives the world’s real perfume power houses. The sight of Grossmith’s Simon Brooke greeting a Bahraini businessman with a box of Victorian-esque, Orient-inspired scents and a cry of, “I've brought some treasure to show you," (a statement on which you could probably write an entire post-colonial thesis) furthers the endless story of shifts in global power relations. And the image of washing detergents being tested by Givaudan makes you realise, with a sinking heart, that the smells of future childhoods, future love affairs and future pangs of nostalgia are being decided in a soulless lab where creativity has to give in to the demands of budgets and bottom lines.
Compelling though the episode may be, it isn’t without its shortcomings. For a start, the insistence on viewing ‘the rest’ of the world from a Western standpoint feels uncomfortable at times. Granted, it is impossible to present any situation from a wholly objective, God-like vantage point and one could argue that the Western position is as valid as any other, but it would have been helpful to see, for instance, an acknowledgement of the fact that Arabian culture has probably been using perfume longer than any other on earth.
A greater problem is posed by the seam between the Gottlieb and Grossmith stories. Indeed, there are several moments when the differences between the two narratives are highlighted to such an extent that you begin to question the validity of comparing them. Thankfully, a sense of wholeness is restored by the time the end credits appear and Denyer delivers his parting shot: the none-too-comfortable suggestion that, ultimately, perfume/fragrance/smell (whatever you wish to call it) is a powerful social tool which we use to make statements about the ways in which we wish to be included in – or excluded from – the various manifestations of life around us. After all, the very last word uttered in the series is ‘aspiration’.
Overall, the three Perfume films deserve a firm thumbs up. Despite their flaws, they have achieved a feat many in the broadcasting industry considered impossible: they’ve taken the subject of perfume, placed it against a fairly wide context and presented it on one of the most prestigious television channels in the world. I know of several viewers with no previous interest in scent who found themselves enthralled by insights and revelations which they’d never even considered before. For this we should all be grateful to Ian Denyer and to the BBC commissioning body that funded his project and enabled him to place his camera inside what is a notoriously secretive, insular environment.