Dan Snow presenting BBC Two's Filthy Cities

Back in 1965, BBC TV played an April Fool’s Day joke on their viewers. The network aired an “interview” with a man who had invented a new technology called “Smellovision” that allowed viewers at home to experience aromas produced in the television studio. To demonstrate, the man chopped some onions and brewed a pot of coffee. Viewers called in to confirm that they had smelled the aromas that were “transmitted” through their television sets. Well 46 years on Smell-o-Vision is no longer a myth. It became a reality on BBC Two on April 5th 2011 with a BBC Two Show Filthy Cities.

Filthy Cities was a BBC Two series investigating the urban conditions that brought about the introduction of civil hygiene regulations in three majot ciies throughout history – London, Paris and New York.

In medieval London the squalor and lack of basic hygiene led to the bubonic plague in 1665. The following show illustrated the awful fetid conditions endured by Parisians which ultimately led to the French Revolution. And episode three took us to New York and the cities unbridled immigration and growth that led to disease and a drastic change in NY’s approach to sanitation in the 19th century.

The Multiplatform pitch

What series could be more visceral than this? We could add a new audience to history by opening it up to the senses that TV doesn’t reach. So the TV production and multiplatform teams formulated an ambitious plan to create a series designed to entertain 3, instead of 2, of the five senses. Is it a world first for the much heralded concept of Smellovision? I don’t know about world, but for the BBC it was.

We proposed a combination of eTV extended viewing and scratch and sniff cards distributed through the local libraries network and the Radio Times (Circulation – 1.2 m). And with the help of many creative partners we created one of the most olfactorily(?) offensive TV experiences to date.

The Experience

Red button viewers were invited at the start of the show to press red. In store for them was an additional five minutes of specially filmed footage inspired by Red Dead Redemption’s Dead Eye Mode. It was voiced by the show’s presenter Dan Snow. The POV camera dives into the effluent produced by the modern sewerage plant of Crossness near London. The combination of urine, faeces and other ‘tones’ was designed by the producers and AromaCo one afternoon at the fourth floor kitchen of the BBC’s Media Centre. We cleared the area. See here a punters nasal reaction to it…

Programme 2 delivered three olfactory onslaughts – the Tannery, Pong de Paris – the awful smell of rotting animals, blood, faeces and urine (again) and the smell of unwashed French bodies – BO. The second experience was of the tanneries by the Seine which used excrement gathered from the streets to soften the leather to be worn by the rich Parisian’s who could afford such luxuries. Added to that base note  were the top notes of ‘top notes’ of lime. And finally, respite for numbed nostrils – Marie Antoinettes’ perfume. A mixture of rare imported pungent flowers.

The programme idea had been circulating around the BBC for over a year, the subject matter wasn’t something that sits well with commissioners, but the idea of a cities history being told through a prism of hygiene and sanitation was compelling so it did finally get the nod.

Why do it? Well, it was an opportunity to bring history to a slightly less traditional crowd to BBC Two. Given that the average age of a BBC Two history fan is about 55, the subject matter provided us with the chance to get parents and kids together to understand the conditions that medieval Londoners and pre-revolutionary Parisians had to endure. Audience research bears this out the programme got expected viewers for the slot average and red button got 120k for first ep. NOT BAD for a history programme and hopefully 120,000 people took a step back into history and really understood what it must have been like to be a city dweller in those challenging, unhygenic and incredibly stinky times..I still have a few cards left if you want to enjoy a bit of ‘minging history.’

Distribution provided by BBC Learning and card production was provided by the Wellcome Trust.


TV Producer – Sam Starbuck
Exec – Eamon Hardy
MP Exec Julian Phillips
Learning exec – Nina Bell


One thought on “Sensory Overload for BBC viewers – a TV first – smell-o-vision becomes a reality

  1. Hey Julian all very interesting. More so if I had my glasses with me and even more So if your chosen theme worked on an iPad. Time for a change perchance?

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