An interview with director of BBC's Perfume Documentary - Ian Denyer

12th July, 2011

The final episode of film maker Ian Denyer's perfume documentary, Perfume, airs tonight on BBC Four at 9pm. We asked Ian to answer a few of our questions, and some of yours which were posted on Twitter.

Simon and Amanda Brooke of Grossmith (credit: BBC)

Q. What's the final show about?Show three stars both Ann Gottleib and Simon and Amanda Brooke of Grossmith (Brooke's pictured). The former is seen advising on the formulation, in New York, of a new fragrance for a leading but anonymous US designer whose identity most members of the community will be able to deduce. Then she's off on a similar juice-warping mission for Lynx [Axe] in Brazil. It's a key market for the Unilever brand - the fastest growing sector of all, as evidenced by Avon, who have over one million sales reps in the country...

The Brookes have rebirthed Victorian brand Grossmith after Simon discovered his family tree linked him to the great Victorian perfumers. In the UK, their three antique scents are must-haves for sophisticates, but in the Arabian Gulf, everyone who is anyone clamours to get their hands on the stuff.

It's all about markets and tastes, shifting, morphing and showing that what we all like in a smell depends on climate, history, culture and time.

Q. Why did you decide to create a documentary about perfume / Or were you commissioned?

I had met someone at a party about five years ago who had told me he was in Flavours and fragrances - I think he might have been with IFF - and I filed it away, but never forgot about this momentary glimpse into a world I knew nothing about and had heard nothing about before. It was like the monent in the Truman Show when the lift doors don't close in time and you glimpse the workings of the thing. Here was a vast industry whose reach you could understand as soon as you thought about it - which I never had.

We were commissioned by Richard Klein, the head of BBC 4, for a season of films about luxury.

Q. Did you have a prior interest in the industry?

I didn't think so until I started to think about it. I'm 52, so my teen references were in the Aramis zone. In my twenties I was in training with a director who drenched himself in Giorgio Beverly Hills and that was when I first began to be aware of the power of scent. He could clear an entire studio, and we're talking about live audience shows. I told Jean Paul Guerlain how I used to wear Shalimar as a lad, and that helped show the company I was a man of quality. These days I occasionally wear Mitsouko of an evening, which my wife is not entirely happy about. She prefers me in Portrait of a Lady, which I also adore.

Q. How much footage did you film?

237 hours. That's about right for this sort of series. You have to follow stories to see if they'll work, and develop relationships as you film. Sometimes those relationships don't flower, even though the contributors are great. They might not interlock with some other storyline you've already committed to, or there might be duplication of theme or experience.

The job calls for having a variety of developing narratives involving people who may be in different places and times. Apart from the industry or subject itself, the filmmaker is the linking factor, and the players who will be intimately united on screen don't know each other and may never meet in real life. One says a single word in New York, makes a joke about a snowstorm or is suddenly moved by the smell of wet earth, and a bell goes off in your head because four months earlier you were in an altogether different place with someone who said something that chimes with this, and you see a link. Then you start trying to 'produce' real life to make them cohere even better. Neither party knows this, though as often as not you discuss the new angle, and it might come to nothing.

You have to do this with tenderness. People are letting you into their lives, and the trust bond between you is a precious thing. You also have to be brave. You are in the trench with them, but only you have seen what's over the parapet. They may do things that on second thoughts they wish they hadn't, and they have to have the power to step back and say Don't Use That Please. On this series one company allowed us to see something so remarkable and in TV terms, completely golden, and then said they regretted it. It killed me, but it had to stay out of the film.

I spent twenty years making films with crews or various sizes - from two to eighty. Perfume was just me and Producer Emma Tutty. With this kind of film, filmed up close over a long period, people can forget the camera. That's when the real gold comes out - confidences, confessions, tears, laughter.

Q. Is there going to be a second series (@Scentsationalle)

I have no idea at all. But I doubt it.

Q. What's happening with all the unused footage? (@nickgblue)

It goes into deep storage, like the Arc at the end of Raiders.

Q. If you could have made a fourth episode, what would it have been about (@persolaise)

That's very hard. Things work best in magical threes. We talked a lot about IFRA regulations and the sourcing of ingredients, but that's a very hard one to do for a general audience.

Q. Did you have complete editorial freedom? Did interviewees have the right to ask for certain footage not to be used? (@persolaise)

Emma Tutty and I had complete freedom to do and say whatever we wanted, within what are, thankfully, well-defined editorial guidelines set by the BBC and observed, in one form or another, by all British broadcasters. Follow them, and you won't do anything your clients - the broadcaster, won't back you up over. Enshrined in there is the right for contributors to discuss what they have given us, but they don't get to see the finished film or have the right to make changes.

Q. Did you personally find yourself rediscovering old, forgotten perfumes? (@persolaise)

For myself, I reconnected with Je Reviens and Shalimar. We worked with Roja Dove observing the re-launch of a Houbigant fragrance, and told the story of the Brooke family re-birthing three Victorian Grossmith fragrances and an updated version of Betrothal.

Q. Did you smell Brosius' 'England' perfume? What was it like? (@persolaise)

Leathery/smoky/sweaty/chocolaty/wooly with top notes of Fairy Liquid. But it was still a work in progress.

Q. Did the issue of IFRA come up in any of your interviews? Does he think the future of European perfumery is safe? (@persolaise)

IFRA yes, the future for Europe, no.

Q.have you sold it to any channels in Australia? (@saffyishere) -- (Editor's note: I think we can extend this to 'is there any interest to show it anywhere overseas?')

It's a bit early yet - it hasn't even finished transmitting here!

"Perfume: The Smell of the Future [3/3]" Airs tonight on BBC Four at 9pm. Follow the #bbcperfume hashtag on Twitter if you want to tweet while you watch!

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About the author: Grant Osborne

Grant Osborne is the founder and editor of Basenotes. Grant has two children, and a dependence on tea, haribo and bacon.


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    • Persolaise | 12th July 2011 11:33

      Grant, thanks very much indeed for this, and for forwarding my questions to Mr Denyer.

      I'm really looking forward to episode 3.

    • Grant (article author) | 12th July 2011 12:03

      And thanks for asking them. It saved me some work ;) still haven't seen ep 2 yet so going to catch up today

    • Redneck Perfumisto | 12th July 2011 16:17

      Just want to state again how great this series is, and to give my thanks to all involved. If this series should make it to BBC America, I'll watch it all over again (and please be sure that the word gets out on Basenotes if it does).

    • Anť | 13th July 2011 23:25

      Really enjoyed all three episodes. It was the first series I had watched from start to finish on BBC4. A fantastic insight into a number of different sectors of the fragrance industry, managing to be both touching and informative.

    • mr. reasonable | 15th July 2011 16:03

      Congratulations to all involved - and nice of Mr. Denyer to give us some insight into the process. I can only guess at how complex a project like this must have been to pull together, a beautifully choreographed piece of film-making.

    • anotherlemontree | 16th July 2011 00:29

      Thanks so much for this interview Grant, really gives an insight into the way the series came together. Thanks also to Persolaise for your excellent, incisive questions. Great work guys! :thumbsup:

    • Sybarite | 16th July 2011 08:28

      Well reading between the lines and getting to the core, the only one small detail that I found a little daunting and not exactly the best of news, is that it seems one of the ever growing trends we have to look forward to is the prediction that fragrances are heading in the direction of becoming even more fruity. ~ DAMN !!!

      (Am I the only one who thinks this is bad news !?)

    • maa | 16th July 2011 12:59

      it was a great series.

    • Attar | 17th July 2011 13:57

      Loved this show :smiley:

    • Redneck Perfumisto | 17th July 2011 23:03

      I agree. A little fruit is great - too much and it's not wanted here. But perhaps regional thinking will save us. If Brazil's penchant for fruit and China's preference for airy fragrances don't please us, perhaps the supposed Russian love for richer fragrances will come to our rescue!

    • bvezos | 18th July 2011 19:13

      Will this documentary be available for sale? I would love this one for my permanent library!

    • silentrich | 31st July 2011 03:29

      Great series and would welcome a second go.

    • CrimsonMoose | 31st July 2011 19:36

      Loved the first and third episode. Didn't care for the 2nd one, the guy that was searching for new scents in places like phone booths (forgot his name) was so boring. Very informative series overall.