Despite the best efforts of an eccentric, pipe-smoking, kilt-wearing American, the trans-Atlantic battle in the second episode of BBC Four's Perfume documentary is again won by France. In this instalment, director Ian Denyer abandons the marketeers and turns his attention to the people without whom the fragrance industry wouldn't exist: the perfumers. Through a succession of contrasting interview snippets with the near-legendary Jean-Claude Ellena, Christopher Brosius (of CB I Hate Perfume) and a few students at the Givaudan school, Denyer successfully conveys the unknowability of what makes 'noses' tick, if you'll pardon the muddled metaphors. Ellena tries to compare his work to painting, but the analogy only takes him so far. Trainer Jean Guichard claims he can teach technique, but not talent. And Brosius subverts all the established conventions by creating and selling 'real world' accords called 'cucumber sandwich', 'doll's head' and 'roast beef'.
Anarchic streak notwithstanding, Brosius is the episode's weakest element. Yes, his posturing serves to throw the attitudes of the French contingent into sharp relief, but Denyer unjustifiably permits him to dominate the narrative, wasting precious air time with redundant shots of Brosius smelling books, Brosius riding a taxi, Brosius drinking a pint at ye olde English pub... There is no doubt that CB I Hate Perfume's anti-establishment philosophy deserves to be explored in this particular episode, but perhaps the excessive amount of footage devoted to it is a reflection of TV's love of nutty, larger-than-life personalities rather than the importance of Brosius' contribution to the overall argument.
Nevertheless, there is much to savour during the hour. Ellena makes a fascinating interview subject, charming the camera with his twinkling eyes and deep, carefree laughter. The Givaudan students are equally watchable, not least when they display frighteningly precise skills of olfactory analysis. But perhaps the most telling moment involves an anglophile American who has commissioned Brosius to create a perfume that will evoke the scent of England. Instructed to smell an unwieldy bundle of blotters - radiating the odours of, amongst others, tobacco, gin and Cadbury's chocolate - the client plays along and takes a deep sniff, at which point his expression clouds over with disappointment. He doesn't complain - perhaps because he's being filmed - but it's obvious that what he's just smelt hasn't quite hit the nail on the head. The message is clear. You can spend hundreds of pounds on a bespoke creation, you can seek inspiration by smelling car seats and you can get one of the world's greatest perfumers to impart his wisdom to a group of young hopefuls, but in the end, you can't second guess the curious alchemy of perfumery. Even the most talented noses in the world can't predict what will be a failure and what will be the scent that, generations from now, plunges people straight back into their childhoods.
[The final episode of Perfume will be broadcast on BBC Four at 9 pm on Tuesday 12th July and it will focus on Grossmith's success in the Middle East as well as the increasing importance of Brazilian perfume consumers.]
Thanks very much to all of you who entered last week's Mona Di Orio draw; your comments were a joy to read, as ever. Sadly, there can be only one winner and according to Random.org, this time it's
Congratulations! Please send your postal address to persolaise at gmail dot com and make sure you let me know whether you'd like a sample of Tubéreuse, Vétyver or Vanille.
Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everybody,