“Come here Barrett… Barrett, do you use a deodorant?
Susan’s (Wendy Craig) blunt interrogation of Dirk Bogarde in THE SERVANT (1963; screenplay by Harold Pinter) is an abruptly shocking cinema moment. Appallingly outspoken, the ultimate humiliation: one of the last taboos is to even imply that someone smells bad. It is what your best friend won’t tell you. Susan and Barrett loathe one another from their first meeting, with the instinctive unreasoning hatred of two animals. Red in tooth and claw they fight for the domination of boyfriend/employer Tony (James Fox). Barrett whips round with air freshener as Susan prepares to leave the house. Her inquisition of his personal hygiene is accompanied by her savage way with a bouquet of flowers, thrusting javelins of iris¤, carnations and daffodils into a vase like so many poisoned darts. Susan handles them as though she hates flowers as much as she hates – and fears – the manservant.
The first half of THE SERVANT is set in a perpetual bleak midwinter. Within doors, stylised and expensive flower arrangements are everywhere: an artificial deceiving hothouse spring which mirrors Tony’s idle fantasies of a career in the Brazil jungle. No sooner has Susan positioned a vase than Barrett is removing it. Needless to say, the arrangements in Tony’s bedroom are those most vigorously disputed. As regards interior decoration, Bogarde is given a wonderful Pinter line, drolly delivered –
“…mandarin red and fuschia’s a very chic¤¤ combination this year, sir”
This is fruity-floral extravaganza at its most florid¤¤¤, especially effective in a black and white movie whose monochrome is so much a part of its whole Gestalt. Outside Tony’s bijou Chelsea home, London is all darkness, wind, rain, snow and arid cold. Whereas the interiors are full of the smell of plants, tobacco, clothes, paint, sex, food and drink: all of them expensively chosen weapons in the armoury of domination¤¤¤¤.
Tony owns a spectacularly large bottle of cologne, guarded as possessively as a child’s teddy bear. It’s kept in his private bathroom which is duly invaded by the sluttish Vera (Sarah Miles) and Barrett. Once Tony has left the house the abandoned pair disport themselves (“splash it all over!”) with the master’s perfume in an orgy which is the more startling and disturbing for being left vague, enigmatic, still guarded by ’60’s censorship.
A highlight of creepy sensory horror is the restaurant sequence: here’s an establishment that smells as though never aired. “Too posh to wash”, all right. This fine diner could do with some fresh flowers about and a window open. A sinister bishop* guzzles with his chaplain, the pair of them simultaneously sticking their noses into brandy snifters. Harold Pinter in person is glimpsed in the background, dining with a girl who simultaneously eats, drinks and smokes: holistic sensual indulgence – “gorgeous! Simply gorgeous!” A strong-minded woman in a pot hat, gnawed with jealousy, dresses salad with lemon juice while interrogating her young female companion.
Even in 1963, flower arranging as a leisure activity and the employment of designated servants were beginning to seem a bit dated. Rather earlier, I remember my mother being reluctantly enrolled on the Church Flower Rota. Specifically, I can smell the old brass tap set in the exterior south wall at just about my height. We were careful to walk round the church clockwise to the tap: if you went round a church widdershins terrible things happened, as a little book of fairy tales in the nearby library bore witness. I remember the smell of icy water gushing into a huge earthenware pitcher that I vaguely imagined having something to do with the Wedding at Cana; and the green sharp tang of brown and gold chrysanthemums unwrapped from rough brown paper to have their woody stems cut and trimmed with steely secateurs.
I am told that today it’s getting harder to fill the quota for the Rota. Flowers are expensive and “tricky”; no one has the time nor inclination to choose and display them. The old ideal of a geisha spending a day positioning a single spray of cherry to its best effect seems bizarre. I notice at the supermarket that spring bulbs now come ready potted in cardboard so you don’t even have to choose a bowl for them once you get home. I’ll tell you one thing: Florence Nightingale would be relieved. There exist exasperated letters written in the late 1850’s by the great reformer, then bottled up in a baking London summer at the Burlington Hotel, writing reports on army hospitals. She was rarely free of background grizzlings from her mother and sister whose “whole occupation…was to lie on two sofas and tell one another not to get tired by putting flowers into water…I cannot describe to you the impression it made on me.”
Surely as lovers of fragrance we can find a Middle Way?
¤ “so spikey and unfriendly” as Ann Todd remarks in another context.
¤¤ pronounced, of course, “chick”
¤¤¤ the in-house workman tries to catch his mate’s eye.
¤¤¤¤ be sure not to miss Barrett’s washing of Tony’s feet in scalding water laced with Stag salt. The censor asleep again.
* the “Vicar of Hell”, indeed