Discovering the magic of Harry Potter’s world
15:03 17 March 2014
The spell that ended the screen life of Harry Potter may be finally broken: JK Rowling is writing a film based on the textbook the boy wizard used at Hogwarts. Stacia Briggs thought it was time she found out what all the fuss was about.
With another Harry Potter film being scripted (well, kind of) and author JK Rowling recently casting aspersions on the viability of Ron and Hermione’s marriage, the boy wizard’s reign over the silver screen may have come to an end, but his magic still lives on in the hearts of millions of fans.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Harry Potter Studio Tour held at the Warner Brothers’ studios in Hertfordshire where all eight films were made over the course of a decade.
At Leavesden Studios near Watford, fans have the chance to enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour and a chance to see the sets, props and costumes that appeared in the film – you can wander down the cobbles of Diagon Alley, stride through the Great Hall at Hogwarts, have your photograph taken outside number four Privet Drive and take a peek inside Harry Potter’s dormitory.
Harry’s broomstick, Hagrid’s motorcycle, Hermione’s cloak: they’re all here. And you’ve got the chance to take a trip on a broomstick or battle with a wand: for once in my black-clad life (and not counting Halloween) I was appropriately dressed.
None of the above, I should point out, means a thing to me.
Despite having two children under the age of 16 who loved Harry Potter, I have neither read the books nor seen the films – it’s a bit of an “I’ve never seen Star Wars” moment. Except I have seen Star Wars.
My soon to be 16-year-old daughter Ruby joined me on the Warner Bros’ tour and, during the three-hour coach trip, gave me a cramming session on Harry Potter as if I was about to take GCSE Hogwarts.
I think it goes a little bit like this: Harry Potter is an orphan and a wizard who goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where he meets his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. With help from his magical friends, Harry battles to overcome the dark wizard Lord Voldemort (who doesn’t have a nose) who wants to become immortal, conquer the wizarding world, rule non-magical people and destroy everything and everyone who stands in his way.
I may be slightly paraphrasing the 1,084,170 words that make up the series of seven fantasy novels. Just a bit.
Ruby and I joined The Galloway Travel Group tour to The Making of Harry Potter – picked up in Norwich at around nine, it was a leisurely drive to Watford thanks to splendid driver Tony (who brilliantly pointed out at one point that we were passing the natural habitat of Britain’s only edible dormouse. We didn’t stop to set traps).
Arriving at the set, the initial slight disappointment at not being greeted by the dreaming spires of Hogwarts but rather a set of vast industrial hangars close to Watford’s CarpetRight swiftly dissipates when you begin the tour, queuing for the introduction in a line that passes the under-the-stairs set where Harry Potter spent his formative years at Privet Drive.
Inside the first room, a guide tells you about the experience (“we normally say to allow around three hours for the full tour, but we have had a couple who were here for ten-and-a-half hours…”) before we are taken to a cinema where we watch a video about the making of the films.
In it, we learn several secrets – how Quidditch is brought to life, the visual effects that remove Voldemort’s nose, the magical spellbooks on Dumbledore’s shelves that are actually covered phone books, how Harry’s Invisibility Cloak worked, how candles floated, how Hagrid appeared so much bigger than other characters – all presented by stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, virtually, at least.
I don’t just learn secrets, I see bits of the films for the first time. I just know I’m the only one in the auditorium who can make that claim.
The real magic begins as the film ends with Harry Potter himself inviting the audience to follow him – the curtain rises, the screen disappears and we’re at the front gates of Hogwarts itself, guarded by huge statues. The doors swing open and we’re in the Great Hall, set for a feast complete with hog-head water dispensers, vast oak tables, smoke-blackened walls and coats of armour.
Daniel Radcliffe walked on this stone floor. Emma Watson sat at this table. An American tourist touches the floor reverentially: “They were here! They were really here!”
After the Great Hall, all tour guides disappear as if by magic, leaving you to take the rest of the exhibition on at your leisure (there are fearsomely well-versed HP experts on hand if you’ve got any questions – I just asked Ruby. She is probably available to hire for a reasonable fee).
We see the Gryffindor common room, Professor Umbridge’s office inside the Ministry of Magic, the Creature Effects workshop (including Buckbeak the Hippogriff, Aragog the giant spider, Fawkes the phoenix, Dobby the House-Elf and Gringotts Goblins – keep up at the back), the Weasley’s kitchen, Harry’s dormitory and Hagrid’s Hut.
I turn down the chance to ride on a broomstick – too much of a cliché looking the way I do – and instead we head outside to try a glass of the infamous Butterbeer, the young wizards’ beverage of choice.
It’s a secret recipe that magically gives you a moustache of foam and which tastes like – how can I describe it? – butterscotch, biscuits and vanilla cake topping in a glass. Better than it sounds, honestly (although one between two of us was more than enough – it’s like being smashed over the head with a sugar hammer).
In the courtyard, you can visit 4 Privet Drive, see the triple-decker purple Knight bus, a section of one of Hogwart’s bridges and – on the day we visited – some of the animal stars from the film. Hedwig the owl was there, as was Hagrid’s loyal dog Fang along with a stand-in Neville the Toad and Mrs Norris the cat.
I wouldn’t like to cross Hedwig – he had the look I often see in the mirror when I’ve had a particularly bad day.
Even as an uninitiated muggle, I was blown away by the attention to detail that brought Harry Potter to life – the 350 handpainted portraits, the intricate shop fronts of Diagon Alley, the thousands of potions with their hand-drawn labels, the sheer brilliance of the 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts itself – used in each of the films for exterior shots - which has to be seen to be believed.
My favourite section of all was the Creature Effects department. If you like walls filled with terrifying decapitated heads, severed limbs, monster’s scalps, hideous wigs and nightmare-inducing rubber masks (I do) it’s absolute heaven.
And when you’ve taken a tour round the incredible model, lit with 3,000 fibre optic lights and detailed to such a degree that it takes your breath away, there’s one last call before it’s time to board the coach and head home.
Watch as your wallet magically empties as you walk through the gift shop on your way out of the building – replica wands cost from £24.95, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans cost a whopping £8.95 and if you want to look like headmaster Albus Dumbledore, a set of his robes will set you back £495.95.
I got away lightly with a Slytherin polo shirt, a packet of every flavour jelly beans (from cherry to sardine, tutti-frutti to vomit, cinnamon to ear wax) and a key ring – and, I must admit, a need to block off a day or two to watch all the Harry Potter films.
Chenery Live, part of The Galloway Travel Group, will be running future trips to the Warner Brothers’ Studio Tours The Making of Harry Potter on May 30, August 6, August 19, October 31 and December 30. Pick up points are in Norwich, Wymondham, Attleborough, Diss, Thetford and Newmarket and tickets cost £59 inclusive. For more details of this and other tours or to book online, visit www.travel-galloway.com or call 01603 679010.