Who’s the prat in the white tuxedo? image

Who’s the prat in the white tuxedo?

Isabel Wolff at the Rock Circus, London's fastest growing tourist trap

Independent - 22nd May 1994

'INSIDE the entrance of the Rock Circus in Piccadilly, London, foreign students throng in their jeans and bomber jackets. 'Who's that over-dressed prat?' I wondered, staring at a man in a white tuxedo, leaning casually against the far wall. Closer inspection revealed that it was an eerily accurate model of Bryan Ferry. But although the Rock Circus is owned by Madame Tussaud, the people who run it are at pains to point out that it's not merely a waxworks, but a celebration of 40 years of rock music.

'It can be quite an emotional experience in many ways,' said my guide, marketing director Glen Furrie, handing me a pair of stereo headphones. 'For a lot of people it's a real nostalgia trip.'

The Rock Circus is the fastest growing attraction for visitors in London. It has had 682,000 people through its turnstiles in the last year: a 23 per cent increase on the year before. It has models of more than 50 stars, including Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Gloria Estefan, Elvis, Sting, Bob Marley and Janis Joplin.

I went up to a revolving platform where Elton John, in a pink sequinned jumpsuit, crouched over a white piano. 'That hair looks more realistic than his own,' I heard someone say. Then I slipped on the headphones and heard Elton John belting out 'Daniel'. As I walked away towards the Stevie Wonder model, 'Daniel' faded and the soundtrack gently changed to 'I Just Called to Say I Love You'. And when I approached the Beatles in their Cavern set, the music changed to 'Twist and Shout'.

'That's rather clever,' I said to Mr Furrie. 'How's it done?' 'Infra-red beams and sophisticated microphone,' he replied, raising his voice above the music in his own headphones. I approached a very Seventies-looking Rod Stewart in velvet flares and floral shirt. Immediately his hit 'Maggie May' filtered through, with Paul Gambaccini's voice over the top, providing a commentary on the history of rock. 'Rod Stewart was one of the most observant and sensitive artists of the Seventies,' I heard Gambaccini say. 'But sadly he was utterly seduced by celebrity and became the Benny Hill of pop.'

A gaggle of Japanese students had clustered around the Gloria Estefan model nearby. One over-enthusiastic girl clambered over the barrier to have her photograph taken with the figure and nearly knocked her off her pedestal. 'That's not allowed,' said Mr Furrie. 'But it's hard to blame them. The photos look terribly convincing.' I admired Gloria's beadwork costume. 'She donated all of that,' said Mr Furrie. 'It adds a note of authenticity. Quite a lot of the artists help us in one way or another. Paul Simon gave us his guitar, and Eric Clapton shaved his beard so that we could get his jawline right.'

So how has the Rock Circus increased its business so dramatically? By capitalising on the association between the stars and the venue, according to Mr Furrie. 'What we now do is to get, say, Jon Bon Jovi or Bono to give a press conference when their waxwork figure is unveiled. And then we advertise it by saying, 'Come and meet Jon Bon Jovi at the Rock Circus, and the word spreads.'

'What do you think of the Rock Circus?' I asked a Spanish student, Jose.

'I like it,' he said. 'But I would like to see more stars.'

'It's pretty good,' said Phillipe, a 16-year-old from Brussels. 'The figures are really real. Our teacher brought us here. Everyone knows about it in Belgium.'

The Rock Circus is probably better known abroad than it is here, a fact which Mr Furrie acknowledges. Walking out on to Piccadilly I stopped a passer- by. 'Excuse me,' I said, indicating the Rock Circus. 'But do you happen to know what goes on in there?' She peered at it, her eyes narrowing in concentration. 'It's a restaurant isn't it?' she replied.