Perfume (BBC4)

Rachel Cooke is taken back to the perfumes of her past by this documentary.

Like many women, I can measure out my life in perfume. My first scent was the old-fashioned and slightly herbaceous Ma Griffe by Carven, which was relatively inexpensive and the only one my mother allowed in the house (everything else, she claimed, gave her a headache). When I was a student, I wore Chanel No 19, the leafy, slightly antiseptic scent favoured by my stepmother, and thought it the very height of glamour. In my twenties and thirties, convinced that Chanel had fiddled with its formulation ("adjustments" are the dread fear of anyone who is truly serious about scent), I swapped it for musky No 5. And now I am grown-up? It is Guerlain's Mitsouko, in which I drench myself every morning: rich and complex, this grand old lady smells of bergamot and iris and about a hundred things besides, and I will wear her until the day I die.

Mitsouko was created in 1919 by Jacques Guerlain, the genius nose whose ghost haunts BBC4's blissful new documentary series Perfume, which comes to you as part of its counter-intuitive (given our present circumstances) "luxury season". The first film (28 June, 9pm) had two strands: the old and the patrician versus the new and the vulgar. On this side of the Atlantic, we were deep inside the House of Guerlain, where Jacques's grandson Jean-Paul, now 83, was pluckily attempting to hand over the reins to his chosen successor, Thierry Wasser. Guerlain, trading on its estimable history and the undoubted greatness of scents such as Mitsouko and Shalimar, is not in the business of launching a new perfume every five minutes. "I hate that!" yelped Jean-Paul, when asked what he thought of noisy marketing. Wasser, keen to come up with a "lighter" Shalimar for a younger demographic, was going to have to tread carefully.

In New York, Tommy Hilfiger was about to launch his new rock'n'roll-themed perfume, Loud ("scent and sound mixed"). What a hoot. Think Absolutely Fabulous meets The Apprentice. My favourite moment came when, shortly before the London launch, the increasingly panicky UK marketing team discovered that no florist could "source" real-life patchouli plants for display at the party (patchouli being Loud's key ingredient). Unfortunately, their boss in New York insisted that "no" was not an option. Cut to the press launch, where a PR person could be found happily clutching the smallest and most pathetic weed ever seen: it looked like a geranium she'd picked up in a B&Q sale. Her plan was to "prettify" it ASAP, though she did not share how exactly she planned to do this (tinsel? bunting?).

The contrast between the brash, concept-led Hilfiger launch and activities at Guerlain was delicious - and the film-makers made the most of it. There were some beautiful moments. Hilfiger, short and preppy and surrounded by sycophants, looked at the Loud bottle, designed to look like an LP, and noted sombrely that only the letters "o" and "u" were clearly visible. "We know what it says," he said. "But what does it say?" (Fashion people will talk in this riddle-me-ree way; they think it makes them sound more intelligent). Meanwhile, Jean-Paul Guerlain, a different fish altogether, spoke of his first scent memory: the smell of the strawberry tart he was given for his third birthday, during the German occupation of Paris. Then he breathed the air deeply, as if this mystical confection was even now before him.

The producers also scored a hit with Chandler Burr, the New York Times's perfume critic (honestly, he exists). Taking receipt of FedEx parcels at his home in Manhattan, Burr revealed that in 2011 there would be somewhere in the region of 1,200 perfume launches. And what happens to these production-line scents? Most of them end up in Target (an American discount chain), where Burr wandered the aisles mischievously, looking for Big Names to shame. When he held up something by Calvin Klein he reminded me powerfully of one of those turd-in-a-bag dog walkers you see in Central Park. Is Loud destined for Target any time soon? It's possible. At Debenham's, the massed ranks of lady squirters insistently cooed the word "lychee" at passing shoppers. But does anyone really want to smell of lychees? My hunch is that probably they don't.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan