Now for something completely different… You have two choices. You can read my post and listen to me burble, or you can simply skip all of that and buy your tickets right now. This is a fantastic experience. It’s the perfect day out for Potter fans, film buffs or parents who are wondering how on earth to keep the children amused until they go back to school in September. Without a doubt, it is one of the best visitor attractions in the UK at the moment; and I say that with complete objectivity, because I’ve never really cared that much for Harry Potter…
Out at Leavesden, near Watford, Warner Bros have given us the chance to see behind the scenes of probably the most successful film franchise of recent years. My parents, who with the patience of saints had spent the weekend helping to redecorate my sitting room, had suggested the day out. They were excited about the prospect, while I reserved judgement: I wasn’t sure what to expect because, generally speaking, we Brits don’t do this sort of thing very well. There’s often a sense of faint apathy or a slight creakiness around the edges. However, that’s definitely not the case here. Everything is professional, sleek and perfectly-judged. I felt that this was a tour created by people who love the books and films, for people who love the books and films, and it never feels tacky. Tickets aren’t cheap, it’s true, but we spent five hours there and came away feeling that we really had had our money’s worth. There is so much to see and, as tickets are for timed entry, there was never a point when we felt overcrowded.
It began in a holding room, with an opening pep talk from one of the young, passionate and extremely well-trained guides, while screens on the walls showed film posters for the series from around the world. From here we were shown into the studios’ own cinema, where a short film set the scene, giving a brief insight into what it was like backstage during filming. One tends to forget that filming took seven-odd years – as long as the characters spend at school in the books – so for the actors who played Harry and his peers, it really must have been like growing up at Hogwarts.
For the sake of not spoiling something wonderful, all I will say is that shortly afterwards we found ourselves walking through the doors of Hogwarts’s Great Hall. Jugs decorated with hogs’ heads stood on the tables and costumes lined the room; the teachers’ outfits were displayed up on the dais, along with Hagrid’s scale double’s outfit; and our guide pointed out some of the finer details of the set, which would never even be visible on screen. This was the only guided part of the tour, because once we’d been shown through onto the first of the converted sound-stages, we were on our own and could take just as long as we wanted.
There was so much to take in that it was a little dazzling at first. Visually the tour was stunning, and at every stage the digital guide offered extra tidbits, from a commentary by Tom Felton (i.e. Draco) to short videos and albums of concept artwork. We started out with the more technical background aspects, with insights from the various directors of the series and an introduction to the set-dressing, costume and hair departments. Then came the part which will probably make every real fan go weak at the knees: interior sets from the films, such as the Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, the Gryffindor common room, the Potions lab, Dumbledore’s office and Hagrid’s hut.
Alongside and between these interiors are cabinets which show off a handful of the tens of thousands of smaller props: a case containing the various characters’ wands; a glass box holding the horcruxes; and a large cage in which I made out troll armour, an oversized gramophone, gilded skeletons and rowing oars, among hundreds of other things. Everywhere I looked I was deeply impressed by the amount of care that had gone into getting every detail right. All the props and sets were beautifully aged and there were many clever little additions that only appear as set-dressing in the films, such as the portraits in the Gryffindor common room. All these pictures showed witches and wizards who had been Head of House, including a lovely full-length portrait of a girlish Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall in her youth. In fact, there was a whole section on the Hogwarts portraits: most of the pictures you see on the main staircase and in Dumbledore’s study were modelled by crew members and their families.
Then we moved to the green-screen section and this is where things can become a little more interactive, if you’re a child at heart (as I am). First of all you can see how some of the impressive action sequences were created and then you can queue up and have a go yourself. Lots of those queueing were under fifteen, it’s true, but there was also a perfectly respectable proportion of people who were old enough to know better and yet simply couldn’t resist. You can either cram yourselves into the front seat of the Ford Anglia, and watch on a screen as you’re shown shooting through the sky – or you can grab a robe, jump onto a broomstick and try your hand at zooming through the streets of London and over the rooftops of Hogwarts. Guess which I chose…? If you want a memento of your moment of madness, you can buy a photograph round the corner for £12. It’s the only moment in the whole tour where a slightly commercial element is introduced but you certainly don’t have to buy the picture. I’d do it again like a shot
Outside in the ‘back-lot’ we took the weight off our feet for a few minutes to try some Butterbeer (I still can’t quite figure it out, although the froth definitely tastes of marshmallow), while admiring the Knight Bus, Privet Road set and the Hogwarts Bridge; and then it was into the second and final sound-stage. Here they have sections showing the work of the creature shop, the animatronics department and the designs of the artists who created the props and buildings. Once again everything is done extremely well and, if you have a favourite creature from any of the films, it’s highly likely there will be some trace of it here. The tour came to a close with a stroll along Diagon Alley, which I spent marvelling at the window displays, before we emerged into the final room for something pretty breath-taking… And that is all I will say about that.
For anyone of my generation or younger, who grew up in the shadow of these stories, it really is marvellous to have a glimpse of this world. Even if you never warmed to the books, this tour is a chance to see the amount of effort that goes into making a film series, and the care that is taken to create a believable and consistent world for the story. It’s clear that much of this was done with real passion and commitment, and by the end of the tour I was really quite moved by the crew’s pride in their achievement. I really hope it will do very well: it deserves to. So, once again, if you need a treat to look forward to (or to bribe your children with) in this rather bleak and wet English summer, this comes very highly recommended indeed.