The audition process to scare people in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds was in some ways like the X Factor. Round one was suitably embarrassing involving pretending to be a huge preditory llama (yes, honestly), acting like a psychopathic escaped mental patient and trying to get the judges attention in any way possible; I fell on the floor and pretended to have a fit. This all happened in a small dance studio in the West End.
Having passed this round, I was invited to a youth centre in South London, near Oval, in a less than salubrious part of town. In fact, I’m sure I spotted the outside of the place in the film Attack the Block.
I entered the shabby looking building with some trepidation. A feeling which was not alleviated by the screamingly stage school looking types that filled the battered sofas and classroom chairs. A tall thin boy smiled up at me so I sat next to him. We exchanged ‘Hi’s and he introduced himself as Blake. He turned out to be the only one of the group of non-affected people that made it through to the end. He also turned out to be Blake Harrison who would go on to play the tall stupid one in The Inbetweeners.
Waiting for instructions, we slowly separated into the ones who fancied themselves rotten and those who were just excited to be there. Excited though we were, it was hard to work out what was going to happen to us. The room was exactly what you’d expect a youth centre to look like: small, cramped, tatty and covered in chewing gum.
After a time of being looked up and down by the drama school crowd, we were called into a room next door. This room did not look like a youth centre – it looked across between a school sports hall and a warehouse. We sat on the parquet flooring and looked up at the metal pillars and rafters until the judges, there were three of them: two men and a woman, told us what was going to happen.
An athletic looking man with dark hair and pale eyes, who was quite dishy now I think about it, stepped forward and said, “If you’re not fit enough to run around the Chamber of Horrors for nine hours a day then you’re no good to us.”
Looking around, there were a few rotund hopefuls who gave each other worried glances.
“So,” the athletic man continued. “When you hear this music…” He indicated to a smaller, dark eyed man who operated a stack stereo.
“It’s coming up. It’s coming up. It’s coming up. It’s dare,” came out of the speakers.
“…then you’ll be doing exercises.” The taller man finished. “Let’s get started. Run around.”
We ran around.
We did sit ups.
We did press ups.
“Run around in different directions but you mustn’t bump into each other.”
Some people bumped into each other.
All of us were sweating by the end of it but a couple of the larger people had gone grey and looked like they might throw up. We did a host of other activities including walking like a psycho, making scary noises, hassling each other round the room with aggressive body language and shouting and various other physical theatre type stuff.
“Now,” the smaller man addressed us this time. “If you can’t control your body then you’ll be dangerous in the Chamber. So, I want you to line up at one of the hall. We’re going to stand at the other end and you’re going to run at us as fast as you can. Then you have to stop two inches from our faces. You mustn’t slow down. You mustn’t run into us and you mustn’t run out at the last minute. You’ll only get one failed attempt. Fail again and you’ll have a black mark against your name.”
Blake was the first to try and surprised everyone by flailing those oversized limbs about like a mad man as he ran at full tilt towards the smaller man but managed to stop dead an inch before his face. He gave a scary psycho laugh before moving out the way. A large chap nearly wiped out the athletic looking man when he went crashing into him. All the dancer girls did the task easily. I ran out at the last minute so I wouldn’t crash into the smaller man. One chance left to get it right.
Carefully, I watched the technique of the successful. Lots of small sporty looking boys made it look so easy that they embellished their performance like Blake had. Then I spotted it. Blake’s long legs and big feet made it easy to spot. He planted his leading foot in front of the judge, leaned back to stop and then flung his weight forward to make it look like he’d come to a lurching stop. Years of martial arts training paid off as I managed to replicate his technique in front of the smaller man, but with far less flare. My next attempt was more confident and I gave a Hulk-type roar right in the judge’s face. He laughed.
After a few more goes the activity was over and we were all shattered. When we heard, “It’s coming up. It’s coming up. It’s coming up. It’s dare,” we all groaned. Running, jumping, sit ups push ups, a strange partnered sit up where you had to hold someone behind the knees as they sat up and yank hard at a certain point enabling them to stand up, ensued.
By lunchtime, we had had it. Even the drama school kids, dancers and sporty boys shuffled down to the Co-Op to buy food. No one said much as we ate, broken up into our various tribes.
“I wonder what the afternoon will hold,” I said to Blake.
“God knows,” he said. “Could be anything.”
It was dodge-ball followed closely by, “It’s coming up. It’s coming up. It’s coming up. It’s dare.”
The rest of the afternoon consisted of more scary noises, more running about, more physical theatre and more ‘Dare’.
At the end of the day we were separated into two groups: half in the hall and half in the seating area. I was in the hall. Most of the overweight people were in the other room. Our group was asked to come back tomorrow; the other group was not.
Morning found us sitting in the waiting area with aching muscles and sore throats.
“I wonder…” Blake had started to say to our little group when he stopped and looked at the door to the hall. “What is that all about?”
Turning to see what he was looking at, we found the three judges with black fabric sacks in their hands advancing on the group of drama school kids nearest the door. The kids had the bags thrown over their heads and were dragged into the hall. This happened to all of us. When my turn came, all I could think was that the hood smelt a bit musty.
A loud heartbeat was playing in the hall. I was lead to a seat and the hood removed. The hall was dark. We were all sat facing each other and told that we had to get our faces very close to each other but we mustn’t smile. My partner was one of the normal boys with blond hair and a friendly face. We were inches apart and he was finding the task much easier than me. Every time the judges shone their light in my face I was desperately fighting to control my rebellious face. In hind sight, I think this was the beginning of the end for me.
As the day wore on, with lots of activities that involved running around trying to scare and disorient each other, I realised that I was struggling to maintain any real energy.
The female judge told us that if we passed today we would go through to trying out our skills in the real Chamber of Horrors. They mocked up a Chamber using rows of chairs to create a narrow maze. We were running surprise scare attacks on each other when the athletic man whispered in my ear, “Are you in pain or what?”
“No, I’m fine,” I told him, but I wasn’t. My muscles were fine but I felt dog rough. My head was banging, my limbs were full of lead, my hands were shaking and I was cold sweating.
By the final test – pretending that the judges were visitors to the Chamber and trying to scare them – I had nothing left. Apart from a few nifty waiting and jumping out tricks I contributed very little. My enduring memory is an image of Blake hanging off the wall and laughing like a mad man at the top of his voice.
My group of normals, apart from Blake, were separated from the others and told that we hadn’t made it through.
On the way back to Oval Station, the blond haired, friendly faced boy expressed his opinion that we non-drama school lot didn’t stand a chance. I was feeling too ill to care.