Who's the dummy?

'IS that Freddie Mercury?' demanded a small Australian girl. 'No, dear,' replied her mother after careful consideration: 'That's Prince Charles.'

The confusion is understandable. The famous Madame Tussaud's royal tableau in the Grand Hall ('the essence of Madame Tussaud's,' according to the pounds 1 souvenir guide) has been the subject of some frantic reshuffling. Captain Mark Phillips has been lugged upstairs to reside in the 'Garden Party' along with such showbiz celebs as Dame Edna Everage and Paul Daniels. Fergie has been moved sideways along the tableau to stage far-left and looks ominously semi-detached - clearly one step from relegation to Paul Daniels country.

In these circumstances, it would hardly surprise anybody to find Freddie Mercury beside Prince Philip: the Queen with 'Queen'. At least it would be interesting.

It is hard to see what makes Madame Tussaud's so successful. Yet for the past six years it has been Britain's most popular tourist attraction to charge admission - last year drawing 2.25 million visitors. Coaches disgorge eager passengers in an apparently seamless throng. In the queue, foreign voices predominate; about 60 per cent are from overseas. So what brings them here?

Two girls from South Africa said they expected Tussaud's to be the highlight of their visit: 'Some friends of ours took amazing photos when they were here recently. It looks fantastic.' It is certainly not cheap: pounds 6.40 for adults, pounds 4.15 for under 16s, pounds 16.95 for a family ticket.

The first section is the aforementioned Garden Party of celebrities. In this party, time has stood still for at least a decade. Who's that in the Mao suit? It's a 30-year-old Ken Livingstone - presumably well-known to everyone in Stuttgart and Cape Town. And still back in the Seventies, meet Telly Savalas (Kojak) and Manuel (Fawlty Towers). Compared with Mr T (The A Team) or Dudley Moore, the likes of Terry Wogan and Kylie Minogue seem shockingly up-to-date.

It must be hard to keep on top of trends in the waxwork business. But it is impossible to excuse, for example, the absence of Madonna (the sculptors cannot blame a lack of available anatomical detail).

If the Garden Party celebrities are obscure, the choice of politicians, royalty and artistic figures in the Grand Hall is positively bizarre (remember Kemal Ataturk or Konrad Adenauer?). Most do recognise General de Gaulle: 'Wasn't he tall? He was a tall general,' said a woman. 'But he had revolting ears,' observed her friend.

Neil Kinnock is here, but John Smith is not. For some inexplicable reason, Maggie Thatcher occupies a dusty corner next to Bob Geldof. At the piano is Ludwig van Beethoven, who looks suspiciously like a recycled Keith Richards.

The final scene is the famous Chamber of Horrors, guarded by Adolf Hitler (surely here is a chance to strike a more contemporaneous note with Saddam Hussein or Pol Pot). The essence of the Chamber of Horrors was to see famous murderers in the flesh - waxy flesh at least. But Tussaud's murderers are no longer notorious: who remembers Crippen, Christie or the Acid Bath killer?

Even the more modern criminals represented here - Dennis Nielsen, Donald Nielsen or Charles Manson - are too old to provoke much horror.

Yet, according to Tussaud's, 95 per cent of visitors claim to be 'very satisfied' and there is a high return rate. Moreover, it doesn't rest on its laurels: Tussaud's has an active sales team with a strong presence at foreign travel trade shows.

Most of Tussaud's success, however, derives from the fact that it is now high on the list of London's must-see sights, along with Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard. 'It's an enviable position,' says Juliet Simpkins, of Tussaud's. 'Waxworks in other cities are generally poor quality. Tussaud's is the biggest and the oldest. It's also fun.'