Monday, 26 March 2012

Real wizardry: the new Harry Potter London attraction

“You may never look at Quidditch the same way again.” This is Daniel Radcliffe’s (aka Harry Potter’s) parting shot as he and his on-screen classmates Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) introduce visitors to the Making of Harry Potter studio tour.

This brand-new attraction in the outer reaches of London’s northwest claims to uncover the secrets of the most commercially successful film series ever produced. Nothing on display here has been specially created for the tour – a Universal theme park this is not.

But just because you won’t find thrill rides here doesn’t mean that there’s nothing thrilling to see – and the start of the tour has that air of theatricality we have all come to expect from the theme parks. After the short introductory film the cinema screen disappears to reveal the door to Hogwarts’ Great Hall and passing through these famous doors is genuinely dramatic. The set was one of the first to be completed, as well as one of the largest, and the actors hadn’t seen it until they began filming – meaning that Radcliffe’s jaw-drop expression in the Philosopher’s Stone is as real the solid York stone on the floor beneath your feet.

Around the hall you’ll find robes belonging to characters from each of the four houses (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin) and Harry Potter’s first ever set of robes are pointed out by staff and duly photographed by excitable fans. You can spend as much time in here as you like and any ardent fan is sure to find it hard to move on, imagining not only the scenes played out in here from the films but also the parties the cast and crew have held in here over the years.

It has to be said that the Great Hall is the high point of the tour, but that is not to suggest that the rest is not engaging – or, dare I say it, even magical. The sets on display include the Wesley’s “Burrow”, Dumbledore’s office, the Potions classroom and Hagrid’s hut, and you can see everything from the sorting hat to the door of Gringott’s vault. A display of wands shows clearly how each character was waving around an entirely different (and character-specific) wand and highlights the level of detail which runs throughout all of the films.

And that is what is most enthralling here. Seeing the sets and props of a much-loved film can often be something of a disappointment, as you discover unpainted plywood hiding in the corners and unfinished props meant to be seen only from one angle. But Harry Potter is different – everything created for these films was lovingly produced as if at any moment the whole place would come to life and a bunch of actual witches and wizards would require it all to be pressed into service. Some 17,000 wand boxes were individually crafted and handpainted for the scenes filmed in Ollivanders wand shop, yet only a couple were seen and even then only for a few seconds. They were then blown up by the special effects department (so can’t be seen here). In Dumbledore’s office there are 48 portraits on the walls, each one of which was painted twice, once with the character awake and once with them asleep, and switched over for night scenes accordingly.

Seeing the sets and props here means seeing them for longer than you will have done on-screen and this is one of the joys of a visit. In the Creature Shop you can see the Monster Book of Monsters snapping its fang-like teeth and wonder at the lifelike appearance of models of characters including Hagrid and Dobby the House Elf, while outside you can climb aboard the Knight Bus and sit in the flying Ford Anglia. In Diagon Alley you can gaze into the windows of Ollivanders and Wesleys Wizard Wheezes and through the magic of interactive touchscreens the interior sets area offers the chance to explore the Marauder’s Map.

Although at times the tour feels very museum-like, with displays featuring quotes from crew and information about production issues (such as the challenge of making the films before the books were even finished), this is also a family attraction and there is plenty for the kids to enjoy. At the Burrow a series of mounted wands can be used to control props inside the set so visitors can chop carrots or knit a scarf (although one of these was already broken when I visited), and there are passport stamps to collect and hidden snitches to find.

The tour’s most theme park-like component is the Disneyesque “Quidditch Photo Experience”, an opportunity to sit on a moving broomstick in Hogwarts robes and have your picture taken against a computer-generated backdrop. This is sure to attract those eager for a souvenir but at £12 a photo it smacks of money-making and, to me, felt like an unnecessary intrusion – especially when everything else here is marketed as “authentic”.

The tour ends on a high note though, with the final room being home to one of the film’s most impressive props – a model of Hogwarts castle. There is little that can prepare you for the truly stunning craftsmanship and the sheer amount of hard graft that has gone into creating this striking model and emotive piped-in music makes this an emotional experience for many a fan.

This is all the better to prepare you for the inevitable, the exit through the gift shop. But ignore the sweets that give little change from a tenner and Dumbledore’s £500 robes (yes, really) and spend your time in the wand room instead. Here you’ll find wand boxes printed with the names of every person involved in the films, from JK Rowling to the runner; a sight which really brings home just how much was involved in creating these much-loved films. And that’s the real magic.

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – the Making of Harry Potter opens on March 31. Adult tickets cost £28, children’s tickets are £21 and under 5s go free. Audio guides cost £4.95 and are available in English and eight other languages. The nearest station is Watford Junction, from which shuttle buses depart every 30 minutes. Tickets cost £2 per person return.

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