Welcome To Hogwarts

30th March 2012

Jill Glenn enjoys a preview of The Making of Harry Potter, the brand new, heavily hyped Warner Bros Studio Tour, and hears the magic words…

The countdown to the long-awaited Warner Bros Studio Tour: The Making Of Harry Potter is at its eleventh hour as I write. On the afternoon of Saturday 31 March, the latest chapter in the amazing Harry Potter story will be revealed to its breathless audience. If you can’t be there (and you probably can’t; this is strictly invitation only, naturally) you can watch the whole thing live via their website. It’s bound to whet your appetite for what’s to come, although when the attraction is finally open to the public it’s possible that Potter-loving thrill-seekers may feel short-changed. The United States gets The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Islands of Adventure theme park in the Universal Orlando resort, Florida, complete with rides such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Dragon Challenge; the UK gets two aircraft-style hangars on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Watford. Clever marketing by the company has branded this the ‘Warner Bros Studio Tour: London’ – and there’s a HP-branded shuttle bus to ferry visitors to and from Watford Junction station – but, however you dress it up, the location certainly lacks glamour. Even so: seven books, eight films, ten years… it’s an astonishing achievement. You can’t blame Warner Bros for wanting to carry on milking the sacred cow.

Currently on www.wbstudiotour.co.uk there’s a link to a fast, frenetic sequence showing the assembly of the two hangars in which the attraction is housed. It reveals something that Warner Bros is, if not exactly hiding, then not exactly flagging up either. Technically, this isn’t a ‘studio tour’ as I think most of us would understand the term; technically, it is a tour of two new-built areas and a ‘backlot’ housing the sets, props, costumes etc from the Harry Potter movies.

It’s something of a ‘show and tell’ approach: sure, these are the real things (inasmuch as anything in JK Rowling’s imaginary land is real, of course) but they aren’t where they were. They’ve been picked up, dusted down, repositioned, and as a result feel a bit… sanitised. The Making Of Harry Potter is neither one thing nor the other: not a ‘behind the scenes’ insight into the studio itself, nor a theme park style walk through a Hogwarts replica. It’s less a tour than an exhibition or museum, with plenty of video clips and interpretation boards to support the artefacts, plus plenty of well-informed staff. They’re almost all young, bright and confident, and if they weren’t Harry Potter masterminds before they started, they certainly are now. They add both personality and value to the visit. Even so, there’s an air of anonymity about the whole place; I’m surprised that the café, for example, is so neutral. Surely they could have turned it into The Three Broomsticks…

Despite these reservations, it is true that there’s masses to see and it’s pretty well laid out, although the area where most of the sets have been recreated can be overwhelming. With the boys’ dormitory (complete with tiny four poster beds; apparently the actors’ legs were hanging off the ends when the final sequences were shot) here located next to the marvellously evocative Gryffindor Common Room, and the Potions Classroom set down adjacent to the corridor of the Leaky Cauldron pub and opposite a prop store, it’s all rather disorientating. It made me feel as though I’d been caught up in some of the more outlandish aspects of the stories – especially as I’d just seen a quotation from the first of the books: ‘There were 142 staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones, narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up’. Quite.

Apart from the first few minutes – spent mostly in the Great Hall of Hogwarts itself, magnificent and realistic, albeit with no ceiling – the tour is self-guided, so you can spend as long here as you want. The advance press information described the anticipated ‘dwell time’ as around three hours, but you could probably take half as long again, fortified by a glass of butterbeer (recipe: top secret; overriding taste: cream soda and synthetic caramel) from a hut halfway round, so long as you are happy mainly to just read and look and learn. It’s not tremendously hands-on, which suited me. The limited interactivity is well-considered and rather pleasing, although when The Making Of Harry Potter reaches its target of five thousand visitors a day I do wonder how easy it will be to explore the pages of the Marauder’s Map, or remotely cut the carrots on Mrs Weasley’s chopping board – and how long you’ll have to wait for a ‘ride’ on a broomstick with the wind through your hair. Whatever that takes, though, I’m certain that people will be willing to queue for the chance to watch themselves on screen swooping over Hogwarts or down a city street; whether they’ll be happy to pay £12 for the resulting photograph remains to be seen.

There is genuinely a huge amount to take in here, and plenty of wizardry to wonder at. You can’t argue with Josh Berger, President and MD of Warner Bros UK, when he says that it highlights ‘the exceptional creativity and craftsmanship that we have in the British film industry, including groundbreaking special effects, incredibly detailed set design and breathtaking makeup and costumes.’ The explanatory sequences in the architectural area are fascinating, and the intricate white card models – of the Owlery, say, or the Ministry of Magic – show a level of artistry that is truly amazing and rooted in a long-standing artisan tradition. The Creature Shop, by contrast, reveals some of the more up-to-date secrets that went into the marvellous animatronics – and Buckbeak the Hippogriff will bow his head courteously to you.

Whatever your initial level of affection for the stories and the films, you can’t fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of everything here, from the intricate model of Hogwarts itself, described as ‘the jewel in the crown of the Art Department’ and used for creating the dramatic exterior shots, to the prices in the gift shop… £22.95 for a cuddly white owl with a directable head; £132.95 for a limited edition Lego kit of Diagon Alley; £495.95 for Dumbledore’s robes (‘please ask a member of staff if you would like to try the costume on…’). This is tapping into a level of Harry Potter obsession that I just don’t recognise…

…but such is the fanbase for the films and the books that the attraction’s preliminary success is assured: the next eight weekends are already fully booked, and the holidays are filling up fast. If you’re tempted to go, be warned. No tickets are sold at the venue itself: you have to book in advance via the website* or through approved tour operators. It is no use turning up on spec; no amount of incantatory pleading will get you through those doors.

The Making Of Harry Potter is a fascinating – but expensive (£83 for a family ticket) – location, and I really did enjoy it. It’s a high-end experience: thoroughly absorbing and engaging, even for someone whose interest in the books and the movies could best be described as ‘idle’ (read five; seen one and a bit) and it certainly made me want to rectify that omission. But is it magic? Probably not.

* www.wbstudiotour.co.uk

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