I can’t say that, up until recently, I’ve given much thought to Madame Tussaud. I knew she was a real person with obviously a savvy business brain in giving people what they wanted as she established a brand which has lasted for over 150 years. Her Baker Street attraction I associate with long queues of people waiting to get in, my only visit was when I was about 15 which I remember loving although I’ve never been back. What changed things for me was Edward Carey’s excellent 2018 novel about her which I finished a few weeks ago, “Little”, which has got me thinking about her quite a bit recently and so seeing this one hour BBC4 documentary on the schedules seemed a bit of good timing.
Made by Nina Barbier and narrated by Ben Crystal this used a French cast and subtitles to dramatise important times in her long life. I’m not a huge fan of the dramatised documentary which was here interspersed by talking head experts such as author Kate Berridge, Professor Pamela Milburn from London University and Vanessa Toumlin from Sheffield. There was no involvement from Edward Carey which I was a little disappointed by.
This hour took as its basis Tussaud’s 1838 memoirs as dictated to her friend Francis Herve. In this account truth was twisted as a means of marketing her and her brand, an early and effective example of the “celebrity” biography where events are tweaked somewhat. Marie had altered her birthplace and background from a family of executioners probably because tradition dictated that she would only be able to marry the son of executioners. (Perhaps the most fascinating fact in the programme).
The novel “Little” makes much of her diminutive size, using it as her nickname and for the book’s title. This was not mentioned here.
The most important relationship in her life was the professional association between the young Marie Grosholtz and her mentor Philippe Curtius and it was explored here but the family dynamics were different from the novel and the fascinating section of the young female waxworker joining the court of Versailles (where she slept in a cupboard) seems to have been total fabrication by Tussaud in her memoirs, but there were enough points of contact between Carey’s fiction, Tussaud’s reworking of her life story and what were the agreed events to make things intriguing.
What should not be overlooked, and which comes largely after the events of the novel is the great business sense of a woman whose business model was unusually matriarchal, who knew how to use, manipulate and exploit publicity, who knew how important it was to both give people what they paid for and offer them a little bit more if they were prepared and able to pay more and who was able to so successfully and independently assimilate business strategies from other forms of entertainment. (Monsieur Tussaud himself had no significant role in the business, other than spend the proceeds, and was a fairly disastrous match who remained in France when his wife came over to Britain to make her fortune). Like many successful business ventures since she aimed to provide education and wholesome entertainment to those aspiring for improvement as well as recognising our more baser instincts (the “Chamber Of Horrors” set-up was a reason for the waxworks’ lasting success). All in all, Marie Tussaud was a woman who should be remembered for her extraordinary entrepreneurial talent perhaps more so than her abilities with wax.
Truth be told, this drama documentary might have felt a little pedestrian in structure for the casual viewer but it was certainly informative and thought-provoking and because my interest had already been piqued by its subject I was involved throughout.
Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax was first shown on BBC4 in February 2017 and has been transmitted a few times since then. I caught the showing at 8 pm on Saturday 27th July 2019 which means it is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.