For nearly two centuries, millions of people have visited the world’s most celebrated wax works museum to admire amazingly lifelike statues of famous people.
Kathy Walton and her daughters went to see if the magic still endures.
If you want to share the red carpet with Kate Winslet this Christmas or kiss Prince William without being arrested, Madame Tussauds is the place to do it. From Kings and Queens of England, to Shakespeare, James Bond, the Dalai Lama, and Tiger Woods, we found plenty of people we recognised, plus a few stars of contemporary pop culture, that I didn’t.
I could name every Beatle of course and nodded chummily at Michael Jackson and Madonna – but Justin who? And as for the name plaque above some modern boy band, well, I thought it was a one way sign directing me to the next room…
Helen Mirren – and admirers
Fortunately for my pride (and my meagre credibility with my children), I could put a name to almost every face at the A-list Gala in the first room. I got to rub shoulders with an ever elegant Helen Mirren, an inscrutable Benedict Cumberbatch and an apparently still unwed George Clooney, draped seductively – and alone - over a sofa.
We all recognised David Cameron and President Obama among the world leaders and, with a little prompting, my daughters worked out that if the guy with the cigar was Churchill, the angry little man with the moustache must be Hitler. Moving on to film and music, they clocked Daniel Craig and Taylor Lautner, apparently the highest paid teenage actor in Hollywood (no, me neither), while I gasped at the stunningly realistic John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, depicted in that wonderful scene from The Seven Year Itch where her dress billows around her legs.
The museum regularly adds new figures in order to generate fresh interest, so I was disappointed to see that the most recent addition to the Royals was not Prince George but Kate Middleton, wearing an exact copy of the blue dress she wore for her engagement photos. The latest incarnation of the Queen (unique in having had 23 wax models made of her during her lifetime) looked splendid in her Diamond Jubilee gown and beside her was Prince Charles (with authentic receding hairline and sticky-out ears), who has the distinction of being the museum’s only carbon-neutral figure, sculpted from beeswax and clay.
Sometimes, though, the popularity of individual characters made appreciating them difficult. You could hardly see some of the waxworks for crowds of adolescents, even adults, posing alongside their icons. A real shame. I was rather nostalgic for my last visit, as a child myself, when the models were roped off and a certain air of decorum maintained.
As well as the excitement of seeing your heroes and heroines almost in the flesh, it is also fascinating to go behind the scenes, where you learn something about the painstaking work involved in the model maker’s craft, which has hardly changed since Frenchwoman Marie Tussaud began making models in the late 1700s.
From the initial sitting, when as many as 200 measurements are taken of a model, to completion, a typical figure takes about four months to make, using a team of 20 artists and costing £150,000. The head is worked on separately and real human hair is used, including for eyebrows and eyelashes.
As I marvelled at models of today’s film stars and athletes, who are very much alive, I was intrigued to learn that had it not been for the ready supply of guillotined heads during the French Revolution, we might never have had Madame Tussauds, named after the woman who began her career making death masks of executed aristocrats.
As a girl, Marie Tussaud (née Grosholtz, born in Strasbourg in 1761) went to live with Dr Curtius, a Parisian doctor and wax modeller, when her widowed mother became his housekeeper. He trained Marie to make life-size wax figures of leading French personalities and such was her talent, that for nine years, Marie worked as art tutor to the King’s sister at the Palace of Versailles.
Then, rather creepily for someone who moved in royal circles, once the Revolution erupted, Marie made death masks for victims of the guillotine, so successfully in fact that people flocked to see the likenesses of those whose greed they believed had blighted their lives. Poor Marie had the unenviable task of collecting newly severed heads from scaffold and fashioning masks from them, including those of her previous employers, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.
When Curtius died in 1794, Marie inherited his exhibition of figures and masks, married Monsieur Tussaud and had two sons. With France in turmoil during the Napoleonic Wars, she moved to England in 1802 with her children, never to see her husband again.
For 33 years, Marie Tussaud toured every major British city with her wax collection, before finally establishing a permanent exhibition in London in 1835. Her early figures included Admiral Nelson, the writer Sir Walter Scott and George III, as well as murderers and criminals (for whom she charged an extra sixpence) – later known collectively as the Chamber of Horrors.
Don’t forget that glitzy celebs, champion athletes and world leaders are not the only people immortalised in wax. Many visitors visit the museum out of ghoulish curiosity to gawp at the unspeakable baddies – the psychopaths and mass murderers who languish in subterranean squalor – and no visit to Madame Tussauds would be complete without them.
Current occupants of the Chamber include Vlad the Impaler, the cruel 15th century ruler of Romania; the sinister Dr Crippen, hanged in 1910; and more recent mass murderers Dennis Nilsen and Donald Neilson, but, to my surprise, no Jack the Ripper: Madame Tussauds has a policy of never making models of people whose likeness is unknown.
If it’s been a while since your last visit, be warned: when the Chamber was renovated in 1996, a new ‘visitor experience’ known as The Scream was added and it is not for those of a nervous disposition, nor as a notice tells you, for the pregnant, the very young or those with heart problems.
Ropes, hideous instruments of torture and skeletons hang from the ceiling, while spooky music and howls of agony hint that a dangerous maniac is on the loose… which, actually, he is… a recent innovation for The Scream is to have actors in macabre make-up and costumes lunge at you from the dark shadows and recesses of the blood stained prison cells… But don’t bother calling for help, for down there in the bowels of the museum, no one will hear you.
Frankly, after such carnage, it was a relief to take a spin in a Hackney cab on the Spirit of London ride, a sentimental if slightly kitsch journey through the nation’s history, taking in such milestones as the plague, the Great Fire, the Battle of Trafalgar, the trenches of World War I and the swinging 60s.
I could have happily ended our tour there, but there was more to come and my children were not to be denied the adventures of Marvel and his Super Heroes, in 4D. We took our seats and then, thanks to cinematic technology, we were splashed with water, narrowly missed by flying saucers and nearly stung by thermo-nuclear wasps (at least, I think that’s what they were), all in the interests of, er, entertainment.
I don’t know what the austere Madame Tussaud would have said to all this 4D action, but needless to say, my kids loved it, and it certainly keeps things up-to-date.
After Marie Tussaud died in 1850 at the age of 89, the museum stayed in her family for several generations, but was bought in 2007 by Merlin Entertainments, who dropped the apostrophe and refurbished the entire site. Madame Tussauds now has a branch in some 20 cities worldwide and the woman herself is commemorated by a tablet in St Mary’s RC church in Cadogan Street, London.
My personal favourites were the late comedy actor Robin Williams, who apparently kept his sculptors in stitches throughout his sitting; rugby heart throb Jonny Wilkinson, performing his legendary drop kick of 2003; and actress Audrey Hepburn, whose likeness was so perfect that she looked as if she could have danced all night and still have begged for breakfast at Tiffany’s…