Kay Walsh was the second Mrs David Lean, an accomplished dancer, screen writer and as a character actress one of the chief glories of British cinema in the 1940’s. Her speciality was the evocation of lower class females; to “get yourself some old clothes and make yourself common like me”. You must have seen her, maybe without knowing it. She knocks back the gin (“not too much lemon, dear”) as Dietrich’s blackmailing dresser in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright; breaks Celia Johnson’s heart as the wayward daughter in This Happy Breed; excites pity and terror as Nancy in her husband’s production of Oliver Twist; knits in the cupboard under the stairs in In Which We Serve.
One of her best parts is her short but key role in the John Mills’ thriller The October Man. “Good natured, easy going, generous to a fault” Molly Newman is the lingerie model and ex-Woolworths girl who entertains men to the customary gin and lemon (“oh, come on don’t be stuffy”) in her boarding house bedroom and ends up strangled on the Common. In four brief scenes Walsh creates an entire life for the character. She is always rich in humour – even as Nancy she makes you laugh – and though in life an elegant and attractive woman she has no qualms about unflattering make-up or on-screen behaviour. Whether picking orange pith from her teeth at a Christmas dinner, ironing from the light flex or spilling cigarette ash down her jumper she is plainly enjoying herself, having fun in a way that you rarely see today. Like bigger stars such as Bette Davis and Charles Laughton she tears at a role with her teeth and fleshes out her lines with the high colour of her own invention like a child in the dressing up box. When I met her (at Harrods cheese counter) she told me with pride how she’d been out and about with Hitchcock during the filming of Stage Fright when they saw a greengrocer cycling down the Kings Road wearing an old mac perfect for her charcter. “Run after him Kay and offer him 7/6 d” said the director. She told me,”I got it for half a crown.”
No doubt she was the sort of actress who would have chosen a perfume to get herself into character: My Sin, Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom or Ashes of Roses. Maybe that’s where she found the humour. Common scents can be a lot of fun as well as being highly effective as the schoolgirl amateur filles de joie in The Passion Flower Hotel find out with a bottle of Jungle Venom which “smelled common but penetratingly sexy.” I use the adjective here not as perjorative but descriptive of a certain robust type of fragrance which is unsubtle, uncomplicated and which cheers you up no end. Maybe Bourjois’s Evening in Paris is the standard bearer of this type for my generation: workers at the Croydon plant were shunned on the bus because of the ripe smell that enfolded them. When a German bomb hit the factory, south London lay for days in a thick cloud of musky flowers.
A common scent by definition is by no means a bad scent; it’s obvious maybe, slightly tipsy, over affectionate, full of loopy amiability, but highly addictive and as stimulating as a good stiff drink. It does its stuff, pulls the rabbit from the hat every time. Whereas for me a bad scent is defined by its laziness of construction, a refusal to engage, an unimaginative thrusting together of ill-matched ingredients. Common scents are florid and flamboyant, golden-hearted queens of the chorus line decked out in jasmine, tuberose, caramel, red roses with vanillin, amber, musk and coumarin to excess. Easy to understand, magnetic to the nose and comforting to wear they suit a certain mood – perfect for holidays, ideal to perk up a boring day or enliven a tedious job. As to their effect on others, they may repel the snobbish or seduce those who are prepared to meet them on their own terms.
Far be it from me to provide a check list of common scents. Their diagnosis is in any case entirely subjective. But I should love to hear some reactions from you on this one.