Where the personalities speak

Tourists flock to Madame Tussaud's, in spite of a curious lack of logic in the display of its superlative waxworks. Reva Klein reports

Visiting Madame Tussaud's is as disorienting an experience as you are likely to have while sober. Who is real and who is a dummy? It took me a good half hour to work it out: the inert figures wearing anoraks and nervously clutching cameras were basically humanoid. Everything else was not.

But what they were and what purpose they had, I'm not sure. Some of them are eerily lifelike. The first one you meet is Manuel, from Fawlty Towers. As you enter what must be the finest example of opulent tastelessness this side of the Trump Towers lobby, he inclines towards you, perilously balancing a tray of cocktails in one hand as he appears to be about to fall backwards into a pond. It is clever and lifelike. It makes you smile and you prepare yourself for a museumful of wit, charm and surprises.

Alas, such qualities were as thin on the ground as coherence, not to say logic, in the exhibition of these superlative waxworks. The downstairs exhibition hall is, let's not mince words, a mess. What does the German footballer Jurgen Klinsmann have to do with Joanna Lumley, apart from the fact that they are both blond? And are Elizabeth Taylor (sporting a highly fictionalised size 8 figure) and Naomi Campbell thrown together into a biliously ornate side alcove because they happen to be female? There was a part of me that wanted to shout out, "Hey everyone, isn't this a rip-off?" But when I looked around me, all I could see was blissed-out tourists who couldn't give a wax farthing about chronology or thematic groupings, or anything else for that matter, except the masterful creations of well-known personalities from lumps of wax.

After a while, the awe became infectious and it was not long before I had joined the anoraked herds, gaping like there was no tomorrow.

Indeed, tomorrow doesn't seem to figure much at Madame Tussaud's, and come to think of it, neither does today. I guess that's what being a museum is all about. But there are some figures that are uproariously dated, given their total lack of historical significance. Centre stage in the Sports Stars Pavilion, for instance, are Torvill and Dean on a raised pedestal, gazing lovingly into each other's eyes, frozen mid-spin in purple nylon splendour.

Much more compelling are the historical displays, and none more so than the one devoted to Madame Tussaud herself. There she stands, humbly flanked between Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire, all shrivelled in lace cap and black dress from a self-portrait that was to be her last work in 1842. As the young Marie Grosholtz, the panels tell us, she was ordered by French revolutionaries to scrabble around among the heads of guillotined aristos in order to make death masks for posterity. Her first was of the prison governor of the Bastille, followed by Marie-Antoinette. Bizarrely, in the circumstances, the young girl must have acquired a taste for waxwork modelling, because she set forth from that moment to make a fantastically successful career of it. Napoleon modelled for her, not once but twice; the second time followed his capture after the Battle of Waterloo, when he couldn't have been in a very good mood.

Whether she came to this country because of the sudden paucity of royals in her own is a question I will leave you to ponder. Suffice it to say that she proceeded to work her way through the British princes, kings and queens, from life or from paintings. And when she died, her successors carried on the tradition.

If you are able to fight your way through the crowds admiring the models of Sylvester Stallone and Michael Jackson, you'll find the real monarchs just waiting to be ogled. They're all there: Henry VIII, encircled by his six, deservedly glum wives, a camp-looking Charles I and a comically dodgy Charles II, who I wouldn't have bought a used carriage from, let alone entrusted him with the throne. Richard III is not far away, looking more like a sparrow than a raven. And there are many, many more.

The Chamber of Horrors is probably one of the greatest crowd-pullers of Madame Tussaud's. Any pretence of historical fact here is purely cosmetic: it is a London Dungeon writ international, with a tableau of an execution by electric chair from the United States, a genuine guillotine coyly coming down on some poor bourgeois head from the French Revolution, and your common-or-garden disembowellings, hangings, racks and other diversions from this country in the various bad old days. Hitler, without any explanatory blurb, greets you at the entrance, followed by Vlad the Impaler, Joan of Arc, Denis Nielson and a jauntily hung, drawn and quartered Guy Fawkes. In short, it is the ultimate torture chamber for any historian.

When we get to the more modern figures, your belief needs to be suspended from a very high place indeed. Bill Clinton wishes he was so thin and Boris Yeltsin's likeness must have been modelled long ago - he looks so lifelike. A dwarfish Lenin and paunchless Gorbachev stand with their backs to each other, and, across from them, African leaders including Mandela, Kaunda, Gaddafi and Arafat share a platform with de Klerk, who looks strangely unperturbed. Interestingly, Saddam Hussein stands on his own - but why is he adjacent to Charles de Gaulle? Is someone trying to make a point here?

I think we can safely assume not. And maybe that is part of the problem with Madame Tussaud's. Except for a very sketchy blurb on an information panel here and there, an overall coherence or attempt to communicate anything other than the figures themselves is glaringly absent. The museum has tried to redress this balance by producing schools' packs and teachers' guides for key stages 2 and 3, in history, design and technology. They contain useful ideas for discussion topics but need to be taken with a pinch of salt when referring to the educational value of certain exhibits at the museum.

In terms of depth, it is fair to say that teachers are at no risk of drowning beneath a flood of information in this material. The four-paged, heavily illustrated Face to Face pamphlets on specific historical events and periods are full of small and largely superficial snippets. The Life and Times in Tudor Britain booklet, for instance, spends a whole page on fashion in the 1590s, with only six lines devoted to Shakespeare - and even those are about fashion.

The material on the French Revolution refers exclusively to deaths by the guillotine, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the Second World War was carried out on British soil. And what can you deduce about the British when Professor Stephen Hawking gets the following description: "His ideas are very complex and difficult for some people to understand"?

The ultimate question must be whether Madame Tussaud's is an educational resource. Ultimately, it can be, but only if you go there with a specific focus. Otherwise, it is too easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of dross. If you know what you want to spend time on, and don't expect too much from the museum apart from the models themselves, you can make a productive time of it. And some fun, too. How often do you get the chance to stand close to a hunk of wax that looks just like James Dean?

* Madame Tussaud's is open seven days a week. No advanced bookings are necessary. Group rates are available for 10 or more people. For full details, ring 0171 935 6861.

Education Show stand SJ26

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