There is nothing like a fake

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The Independent Culture
The BBC series Modern Times returned last week with an appealing look behind the scenes at Madame Tussaud's. Anyone who drives along Marylebone Road will not be surprised to learn that the waxworks is the most popular tourist attraction in Britain. Each year, 3 million visitors wander among its life-size likenesses. Most of them spend hours in the huge queue that stretches like a billboard towards Regent's Park. The film had plenty of fun with the celebrities concerned, and even managed to end on a plaintive note by inspecting the knacker's yard out back, where the crestfallen faces of the once-famous - Einstein, Loren, Wogan, Hitler - stared at oblivion from crowded shelves.

The programme was well-timed as a study of an important modern preoccupation with fakes and fakery. Scarcely a day goes by without something being exposed and denounced as a con. One week a painter is hauled up for knocking off masterpieces, the next a documentary- maker is in hot water for fabricating rather than recording life. In recent times, doubt has been cast on the memoirs of both an Auschwitz survivor and a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. The ongoing spat about TV talk shows, in which Vanessa and now Trisha stood accused of letting actors on to their sofas, is only the latest - and surely not the last - in a string of such cases.

It is not hard to see why this has happened. The commercial need for extremes of melodrama (coinciding with a keen general appetite for it) keeps trampling on the urge to present the so-called "truth". Genuine slices of life are stodgy, complicated, and not always easy to digest. So the race is on, in almost all media, to add spice to the mixture. Children today sometimes refer to genuine facts as "real true life", and anyone can see why they need to underline the point: they are so surrounded by fictions, exaggerations and advertising propaganda that the truth, once the varnish is scorched off, can seem not just dull but actually hard to believe.

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once caught the element of contrivance in human affairs by describing a mapmaker who, labouring to draw an ideal map of Argentina, realised it would have to be exactly the same size as Argentina itself. He was right: we thrive on and love fakes. We build houses with bogus Tudor-style beams or classical-looking columns. We fill them with copies of antique furniture, some of them made in China. Our conversations are full of passing mimicries and imitations; we give prizes to clever impersonators like Rory Bremner.

We like fake pearls, fake fur, fake leather, fake everything. Even our food is genetically faked, a now controversial development driven partly by our desire for ultra-green apples and ultra-shiny tomatoes. This is not just because we're cheapskates - happy to settle for the fake McCoy if the real one is too pricey. The essence of a fake - something that is uncannily there and not there - is an important aesthetic pleasure in itself. It may be one that the visual arts have largely turned their back on, but each week the railings along Hyde Park are lined with lurid paintings of flowers, lakes and mountains. Realistic reproduction - the simplest and yet still the most magical form of representation - refuses to die.

Modern Times tried and failed to wonder why the wax models at Madame Tussaud's should be so popular. Dame Edna Everage (whose statue was, dizzily, a fake of a fake) came closest when she said that these shiny reproductions made people into "precious objects". This is what we demand of our celebrities; they are toys, and sometimes we break them, just for a laugh. So the figures in the Tussaud's mausoleum are not less real than the people they represent: on the contrary, they are more so - bulked- out versions of characters we know from television. And the pensioners who tickle Linford Christie's famous lunchbox are no different from those who for generations have stealthily fingered Renaissance genitals in Florence. These strange creations do carry a semi-physical shock. Can they be real? Yes and no.

Madame Tussaud's seems dated, a Victorian freak show. But the post-modern taste for surreal repetition might well give it a fresh lease of life: Damien Hirst must wish he'd thought of putting Winston Churchill's waxy head in a kitchen sink. When Robert Browning retold, in The Ring and the Book, the same murder story from a dozen different points of view, he was ushering in a new idea about truth; it was no longer a single, golden nugget which needed merely to be correctly lit, but was instead the elusive sum of various competing fictions. The very inertness of these smiling replicas, the absence of any spin, is the essence of their appeal. They seem miraculously innocent, rather as if a glamour shoot in Hello! magazine had arisen and walked. And they are utterly false, which means we don't have to give a damn about them. What a relief.