Inside the Ministry Of Magic - 'The Making Of Harry Potter' studio tour
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Wonders to behold in a world of studio magic...
For many years now, we in the UK have gazed longingly across the Atlantic towards Florida and California where the likes of Universal Studios, Disney MGM Studios and the Universal Islands of Adventures have built vast and elaborate shrines in celebration of our favourite films. From the ground-breaking Back To The Future attraction to the James Cameron approved Terminator 3D experience which included footage shot specially for it by the director, from Jaws to King Kong to Star Wars and E.T. and many, many more...I personally have always hankered for something equally movie centric here at home.
I was over the moon, therefore, when I found out that Warner Bros had plans to open a serious, and seriously impressive, film attraction over here based on one of the most beloved series of recent years.
For the last decade odd the Harry Potter films have been enchanting and entrancing audiences of all ages with author J K Rowling's tale of the boy wizard and his coming of age journey. Over the course of eight films Harry has visited numerous awe inspiring locations and encountered a mega menagerie of magical and mysterious creatures, all of which were brought to life just a few miles outside the otherwise unremarkable town of Watford – most famous until now for its football club's Oscar winning owner, Elton John.
"The locations and props contained within their walls are no mere facsimiles - they are the real deal"
Though America's Wizarding World of Harry Potter is undeniably entertaining and home to all manner of rides and recreated sets, it is the contents of the two massive sound-stages at Leavesden that will be of more interest to the serious Potter fan, for the locations and props contained within their walls are no mere facsimiles - they are the real deal.
From the moment you walk into the entrance hall your lower jaw will involuntarily relocate to the proximity of your knees as your eyes dart from the blue Ford Anglia hanging from the ceiling, to the trolleys full of cases from Harry, Hermione and Ron's first visit to Platform 9 ¾, to the iconic cupboard under the stairs at number 4 Privet Drive. And that's before they've even glimpsed the contents of the gift shop - but more on that later.
"A young member of the group is invited to open the doors and then we're inside the Great Hall, where the fan-boy in me comes screaming to the surface"
The tour itself begins in a small room lined with video screens where one of the employees gives a short introductory speech to the group of people whose tickets have admitted them at that particular regularly spaced time slot, before directing them into a cinema where a short film featuring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint gives a brief overview of what we can expect. The trio appear throughout the attraction in short vignettes, but the obvious warmth and fond recollections they have of their decade spent at Leavesden is really quite sweet, and serves to remind us that they quite literally grew up here.
As the film draws to a close, Daniel Radcliffe appears to disappear through the doors to the Great Hall, and then the screen suddenly lifts to reveal the very same doors and the fact that we are actually where they filmed the eight movies (the first person to describe them as an 'octology' gets a battalion of Dementors set on them). In a nice touch, and one that sets the tone for the entire experience, a young member of the group is invited to open the doors and then we're inside the Great Hall, where the fan-boy in me comes screaming to the surface.
I've never been one to be starstruck when I've had the pleasure of meeting 'famous' people – in my eyes they're just like the rest of us only they have slightly more interesting jobs – but I have to admit that I do get very excited when I visit film sets. As strange as it sounds, though I'm a colossal fan of George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), given the choice between a half hour interview with him and a night alone in the Monroeville Mall, I'd be on a plane to Pittsburgh's most famous shopping centre in a flash (sorry, George).
Bearing this in mind, I'm sure you can imagine my thought process as we walked into the Great Hall. Much to the amusement of my wife, who I credit with introducing me to the world of Harry Potter and for my subsequent love affair with it (see my article here), as I walked on the worn flagstones of this most iconic of Potter locations, I kept turning to her and emphasising 'This isn't a reconstruction – this is the ACTUAL Great Hall', as if she wasn't well aware of this fact. Two great tables lined either side of the Hall, each adorned with cutlery, goblets and the hand carved graffiti that the young cast were encouraged to indulge in for the sake of authenticity, along with mannequins adorned with costumes from the movies.
Moving on from the Great Hall we found ourselves looking at the actual sets of the Gryffindor Common Room and Dormitory, Hagrid's cluttered but cosy hut, Dumbledore's office and the Weasley's Burrow, as well as the main gates to Hogwarts and the dark, brooding Potions classroom presided over by Professors Snape and, later, Slughorn. Interspersed with these were numerous props including several of the Horcruxes, Neville Longbottom's Remembrall, Death Eater masks and Professor Lupin's suitcase, which actually unfolded in front of our eyes.
Making our way between the two giant sound-stages as we reached the half way point of the tour we found ourselves outside number 4 Privet Drive where we sampled some Butterbeer (very sweet – think ice cream float), and had our photo taken on Hagrid's motorcycle by one of the friendly and helpful staff who were very proactive in ensuring that the guests went away with photographs with everybody in them, rather than the usual case where the person taking the picture is absent from the resulting memory.
Also in this open air enclosure was another Ford Anglia, a full size Knight Bus, a scale model of the Hogwarts Bridge, the Riddle Family Gravestone, a full size replica of the house where Harry's parent lived and several of the giant chess pieces from the first movie.
Moving into the second sound stage we found ourselves in my favourite part of the attraction, the creature shop. Flanked by shelves groaning with dozens of heads, props, and mechanical delights, the highlight of this area was a full size, fully animatronic Buckbeak, the Hippogriff bequeathed to Harry in Sirius Black's will, and a gigantic Aragog, Hagrid's talking spider (or Acromantula to be true to the Potter canon) which though I knew it was an, admittedly very large, inanimate object, still gave me the creeps. The creature shop also featured working models of the newborn Voldemort from The Deathly Hallows Part One (disturbing on screen and even more so in the flesh, so to speak), a very active animatronic Monster Book of Monsters that first appeared in Prisoner of Azkaban and a fascinating oversized Hagrid head that I hadn't even realised wasn't real in the scenes that it had been used in.
Moving on, we walked into what will undoubtedly be the highlight of the tour for many guests, Diagon Alley. Everything that we knew and loved from the movies was present and correct, from Ollivander's Wand Shop, to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, to the entrance to Gringott's Bank. Having seen it in the films, and slapsticked my way up and down it in Lego Harry Potter, to actually stand in the actual set was amazing. With the presence of the other guests milling around it wasn't hard to imagine that I was there to purchase my first wand, to procure an owl or to pick up a Screaming Yo-Yo.
After Diagon Alley I wondered whether that had been the finale of our experience, but after a brief wander through the very impressive technical drawing department and a selection of pre-visualisation models made from white cardboard, the intricacy of which never fails to amaze me no doubt due to the fact that I used to spend hours making cardboard models of haunted houses and Egyptian pyramids when I was younger, we turned the corner and after walking through a short darkened passage were rendered speechless.
Coming into a large room on a mezzanine level, we were confronted with a detailed scale model of Hogwarts that took my breath away. The footprint of the model must have been close on 400 square meters, and as I discovered from a short time lapse film on one of several information consoles dotted around the room it had taken a team of set builders forty days to assemble. This, it turns out, was the actual model that was combined with digital effects to provide the stunning views of the School in the films, and as the main theme from the movies played in the background the room cycled from day to night over and over, the lights of Hogwarts (provided by over 300 fibre optic cables) coming on as the light faded. Unlike the rest of the tour where there had been the usual animated chattering and exclamations of excitement, the guests passing through this final stop on the tour were as reverent as pilgrims at a holy shrine, which in many ways we were.
When we were eventually able to tear ourselves away from Hogwarts, there was one last jaw-dropping moment in store for us as we suddenly found ourselves inside Ollivander's Wand Shop. As impressive as the expansive set itself was, the walls stacked from floor to ceiling with literally thousands of wand boxes, we were informed by yet another knowledgeable and enthusiastic member of staff that there were in fact over seventeen thousand individually named wands, and that every single person who had worked on the films at Leavesden, from the main stars who were there for the whole time to the contractors who were there for just a single day, had their own individual wand.
Three hours after entering the tour (and we could have spent longer in there, out time cut short only by the fact that they were closing), we stepped out of Ollivander's Wand Shop into the gift shop, at which point I began to genuinely fear for the health and safety of my credit card. Almost as impressive as the tour itself, the gift shop boasted literally hundreds of different keepsakes for the rabid Potter fan to take home (and which they did with gusto judging from the groaning baskets of many of the guests). From numerous editions of the books, to entire uniforms (for each of the four houses, naturally), to a myriad of wands, replicas of costumes (how cool for your teenage daughter to go to her prom in a copy of Hermione's dress from the Winter Ball), toys and goodies from Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes and impressively detailed and lovingly crafted collectibles for the serious fan; there was something for everybody, and though the sheer volume of items available was staggering, the prices surprisingly weren't.
In conclusion, The Making of Harry Potter tour at Leavesden is a fabulous day out for anybody with an interest in how movies are made, but for the Potter fan it is nothing short of essential, and we will most definitely be returning in due course. To sum it up in one somewhat inevitable word – magical.
The Making of Harry Potter tour is open now, and full details can be obtained at the official site at http://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk.
All photographs used in this article were taken by Deborah Cosgrove.
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