When J. K. Rowling dreamed up the idea of a brave boy wizard on a train to London, even literary experts weren’t convinced her idea was worth publishing. Shoved to the bottom of the pile, her debut novel Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone was picked up by an enthusiastic intern trying to make a good impression. Thankfully, the big-wigs at Bloomsbury listened to their intern and soaked-up the magical tale of young wizards, enchanted castles and evil villains. The rest, as they say, is history.
I bought the first book on a school trip at the tender age of nine, eagerly anticipated the final instalment at 18, and pre-booked my cinema ticket for the eighth film at 22. Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger were like my classmates, everyone I knew lived and breathed their adventures against ‘He who must not be named’. Those books were a part of my childhood and now represent an enduring part of my culture – I am part of the Harry Potter generation.
It’s fitting then that it’s people from my 80s peer group (and not hoards of screaming children) that dominate the crowds at Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter Studio Tour at the Leavesden Studios, 20 miles North West of London. From the capital, we hopped on the 20-minute train journey to Watford Junction where a decked-out Harry Potter bus is ready to deliver revellers to Warner Brothers’ open arms.
Upon arrival the atmosphere is undeniably electric – there’s a plucky employee located in every available space, the ticket machines are child’s play and the layout is so simple it would be almost impossible to not know where you’re supposed to be at what time. So far, so good. The tour starts in what can only be described as a holding pen, where guests are told to watch a video about the cultural influence of Harry Potter across the world. Surely the fact that we have just paid £30 to see the sets from the films proves we’re aware of the significance but hey-ho.
Next you are led into a cinema – at which point my companion joked that we would be forced to watch all eight films before the tour actually began – frankly it wouldn’t have surprised me. After a short film the magic (pun most definitely intended) really starts. Once you’ve entered the magnificent doors of Hogwarts castle you’re launched into the Great Hall, one of the most iconic sets of the eight films. It’s impressively vast, incredibly well made, and the attention to detail is staggering.
Quickly you learn (rightly so) that it took a lot more than Daniel Radcliffe to create the enduring memory of Harry Potter. The artistic directors, set designers and prop masters associated with this film franchise deserve some sort of medal. Props that spend mere seconds on screen have been lovingly handmade, real wizarding letters have been written and stuffed into Dumbeldore’s desk drawers simply to help Michael Gambon get into character and costumes are embroidered to dizzying perfection. Guides and signs adorn every structure and every miniscule prop to reveal secrets from the production. Quite simply, the whole thing is breath-taking.
Then it’s time to head to Diagon Alley. The eponymous shopping street where Harry and his magic-mates go for the essentials – wands, cloaks, brooms, you know…that sort of thing. Just when you thought the tour couldn’t get any more awe-inspiring you hit the real cobble stones of this fantastical street. Even die-hard Potter haters would think twice before criticising this bad boy.
Finally, the maze ends at the ‘to-scale’ model of Hogwarts castle that was designed for the long-sweeping shots used throughout the eight films. I was expecting a two by four model on a piece of plywood, but the sheer size and detail of this monster construction deserved the cheesy starry-night lighting and booming whimsical music.
Although everything about the Harry Potter studio tour is as polished, professional, and imaginative as the original books, there’s still the lingering feel that it’s all a money-making scheme. The tour itself is worth every penny, but I strongly believe that people would have far more respect for Warner Bros. if they didn’t end the tour in the over-priced gift shop. Somehow it taints the whole experience; cheapens it (which is pretty impressive considering the cost of the merchandise) and overshadows the glorious idea that even people with empty pockets can succeed if they have imagination.
Despite this Warner Brother’s Harry Potter Studio Tour is a joyous day out for ardent fans and a gem for artists, set designers and film fans looking to soak-up a little bit of history.
Tickets cost £28 for adults and £21 for children. Bus transport from Watford Junction costs £2 return. For ticket information and prices click here.
Sarah Jordan @S_L_Jordan