Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 9 – House of Wax

France Robespierre's FaceWhen you’ve stimulated your imagination with gorgeous perfume why not float up to Baker St and excite a little more fantasy at the Waxworks? Back in the 1960’s when I first visited Mme Tussauds the place was filled with glamorous gloom, potted ferns and elaborate tableaux behind plate glass. People still squealed and fainted in the Chamber of Horrors: all those rows of butter-coloured murderers wearing clothes supposedly bought from their familes even before the condemned were hanged.

Maybe visitors still swoon upon occasion but the last time I went to Mme Tussauds, 10 years ago, the atmosphere was greatly sanitised. Too few shadows, and far fewer exhibits. Diana Dors in gold lame (fresh off the cover of “Sergeant Pepper”) was gone and the Royal Family looked less convincing under brilliant spotlights. But it was still great fun. For you could now grope or kiss the models if so inclined and so pose for a saucy snap. The Sleeping Beauty was still elegantly palpitating under her lace veil, her breath quickening at a touch.

Maybe you read about the true face of Robespierre being recently reconstructed from a death mask cast by the Madame in 1794? And an ugly old phiz it is, too. I have my doubts: his portraits show a neat fastidious little face whereas this is that of a toad-like pockmarked brute. Maybe Tussaud took the wrong head out of the basket? And you know, from the state Robespierre was in when he was guillotined – botched suicide attempt with a pistol, smashed jaw – would the taking of a mask have been possible or desirable?

What loses the truth game at Tussauds is that the glass-eyed throng all lack a smell, whether of hair, perspiration, fear, or the jonquil & rose waters of eighteenth century France. Or even, as if in some fairy tale her creatures should suddenly grow hot hearts of flesh and blood, the intoxicating odour of hot melting wax: the scent that excited De Sade.


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