The unsung hero of the Yardley soap opera

He sat at a table in tweed plus-fours, wearing full make-up, blue eye shadow, powder and lipstick
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The Independent Online

Last week in court we heard about the latest episode in the sad story of another British company bought by the Germans - Yardley. A former chief executive described beauty products as "worthless" as he set out a claim against the new owners. Represented by Cherie Booth, former Yardley workers are seeking compensation for unfair dismissal.

The Yardley name, it was argued in court, was worth everything. In the world of cosmetics it seems that scents and creams are virtually interchangeable. Leaving that debatable point aside, the story of the rise of Yardley is remarkable - and would not have been possible without the contribution of a unique English eccentric. Who would have thought that a (male) mountaineer wearing eye shadow and lipstick would have created fragrances totally synonymous with English respectability?

The company was founded in 1770 and finally collapsed with £126m worth of debt in 1998. Its boom time was between the wars when a young chemist called Walter Poucher set to work to produce synthetic (and cheaper) versions of hitherto expensive natural scents. For 30 years this unsung genius brought affordable cosmetics and fragrances to working-class women. A keen mountaineer and brilliant landscape photographer, his guides to the fells and peaks of Britain are not only practical but also beautiful and timeless. But Walter Poucher, who died in 1988 aged 96, was also a fully paid-up member of the British Academy of Potty People.

A few years ago I was climbing in Snowdonia when I asked my guide about his most embarrassing moment. Without a moment's hesitation he replied, "Meeting Walter Poucher for dinner." In a Welsh climbers bar, Mr Poucher sat at a table in tweed plus-fours, with a rose in his button hole, wearing full make-up, blue eye shadow, powder and lipstick. Married, with a son, he loved nothing better than testing out his latest products at altitude. Few cosmetics can have had such bizarre trials: while some chemists preferred to test their potions on rabbits, Poucher favoured his own face.

Walter Poucher's only television appearance, on Russell Harty's show, revealed an elderly gentleman who would have put Quentin Crisp in the shadows. Even the normally camp Mr Harty was indescribably unnerved. Who would have thought that the creator of the Queen Mother's favourite scent was a card-carrying drag queen?

A few years ago, I tried unsuccessfully to interest the BBC in a film about the wonderful Mr Poucher, who combined a lifetime love of cosmetics with that of unsurpassed mountain photography. The BBC being what it is, they could not decide whether the subject was "Arts" or "Countryside" - and the project remains in my "must do one day" pile. Mr Poucher's work is still published, in more than 30 volumes. But it would be sad if his perfumes were to suffer the fate of the Rover car and vanish into obscurity, valued only as a "brand" and not as the expressions of his creative genius.

I suppose the story of Yardley, now owned by the cosmetics conglomerate Wella, is that in our modern world, perfumes that traded on an image of gentility and Englishness have lost their appeal. British women no longer aspire to be Celia Johnson. Even that personification of Englishness, Kristin Scott Thomas, is married to a Frenchman. Without the remarkable Mr Poucher to proselytise their products - "I liked this lippy so much I wore it up a Munroe" - Yardley seems to have lost its way. In an era when Eddie Izzard, Robbie Williams and David Beckham display their feminine sides, it's a shame Walter Poucher isn't around to be on a trendy guest list. If anyone could have made his scents fashionable in an eccentric, Vivienne Westwood way, Walter Poucher was the man. This surely is the story of a man who died before his time.