Wednesday 21 February 2018

Harry Potter Studio: We're off to see the wizard

The Great Hall set
The Great Hall set
Nicola Brady has a Butterbeer
Hogwarts Castle

Nicola Brady

We're off to see the wizard...Fans of 'Harry Potter' now have a spell-binding new attraction to visit near London, as Nicola Brady discovers

There's nothing special about the grey suburbs of Watford. As you drive through the sleepy village of Leavesden, there is barely a sign of life, let alone a hint that one of Britain's newest attractions is situated just minutes away.

Yet when our shuttle bus caught the first glimpse of a rather non-descript bundle of buildings, with grey stone lettering spelling out 'The Making of Harry Potter', a ripple of excitement spread through the passengers.

While the low-rise studios resemble an industrial estate, for the 'Harry Potter' fans making their pilgrimage to the site, it's all about the magic that lies within.

I resisted the call of 'Harry Potter' for a long time. I scoffed when I saw adults reading the books on trains, and had no intention of becoming one of them.

But one day, on a whim, I decided to read one. Then another. Soon I had completed the series, and fallen hook, line and sinker.

Which is how I found myself on the Warner Bros Studio Tour bus, feeling that ripple of giddiness running through me, too.

Much has been made of the grim exterior of the studios, but this is the location where all of the films were made, as part of one of the biggest movie franchises of all time.

In studios J and K (pure coincidence, I'm assured), some of the most intricate and detailed sets from the movies are on display, each one the original that was used in production.

Nothing has been built specifically for the tour, and every costume, prop and creature you see has been featured on-screen.

There are none of the rides or rollercoasters that are found in the Florida theme park The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Instead, visitors are free to roam through two sound stages and a backlot at their own pace, taking in the scenes from some iconic movie moments.

Dumbledore's office, complete with hundreds of dusty tomes lining the shelves (each one an old phone book, handbound in battered leather).

The Gryffindor common room, dotted with costumed mannequins and spell books, perched upon weathered settees and armchairs.

Even the Burrow, home of the Weasley family, with a self-chopping knife, an iron working on a dress and enchanted knitting needles, which click of their own accord.

The tour begins in a cinema room, with a short film featuring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson introducing the attraction and giving a short backstory to the films.

As the trio walk through the grand doors of the Great Hall, the screen lifts to reveal the doors themselves, a slick move that led to quite a few gasps from the audience.

One of the more impressive things that you realise as you stroll around the imposing sound stages is how many of the magical effects were created by hand.

Buckbeak, the horse/bird creature featured in 'The Prisoner of Azkaban', was built as an animatronic model, and is now on display along with elves, dragons and werewolves.

The doors of the wizarding bank Gringotts were painstakingly created with a series of complex mechanisms, for a scene that lasted seconds on the screen.

Everything on display, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, is produced to incredible detail. Each of the wands in Ollivander's wand shop, for example, featured a handwritten label on the box. There were 17,000 of them.

Each set is manned by an enthusiastic member of staff, ready and willing to relay trivia and facts about what you're being shown, and how it was made.

The heavy stone walls of the common room? Painted plaster. The glossed tiles of the Ministry of Magic? Plywood. When I was shown the towering Magic is Might sculpture and told that it was hand-carved from foam rather than rock, my hand instinctively went out to feel for myself, a move which happens all too frequently, according to my guide.

Which is why my visit to the tour was peppered with alarm bells ringing, as inquisitive hands reached out to touch the exhibits.

When they ask you not to touch, they mean it. With each piece a precious article of memorabilia, this is understandable, but will no doubt cause disappointment with little (and not so little) visitors wanting a feel of the invisibility cloak for themselves.

It's easy to get caught up in the excitement and magic of the sets. The scale of the scenes combined with the intricate detailing has created a world so realistic that you feel you could be walking the halls of Hogwarts.

But this comes at a price.

An adult ticket is £28 (€33), or £21 (€25) for a child, for a tour that lasts around three hours (though you're welcome to spend longer if you wish).

Family tickets are available at £83 (€99), but you'll be lucky to leave without spending more.

As the tour of the first sound stage finishes, visitors can don a Hogwarts robe, hop on a broomstick and, through the magic of green screen technology, weave through the streets of London, over the turrets of Hogwarts and over Scottish lakes. But fly at your peril -- a single photograph of the occasion will set you back £12 (€14).

Carry on to the backlot, and you'll see Number 4 Privet Drive, the house where Harry was raised, as well as the rickety Hogwarts bridge, spell-shocked Godrick's Hollow and the three-storey night bus.

What children will see first, though, is the stall selling Butterbeer, a sickly foam-topped drink that will prove difficult to resist, and cost you £2.95 (€3.50) a cup.

And that's before you reach the gift shop, where you can find Honeydukes' sweets and Hogwarts uniforms, as well as memorabilia with prices to make your eyes water.

A chocolate frog is £8 (€9.50), a pot of jelly beans £9 (€10.75) and a polyester scarf £25 (€30).

Dumbledore's robes may be a delight to behold, but they come with a price tag of £495 (€591).

While there is no denying that the tour is expensive, the price is comparable to a similar family attraction in London (excluding the numerous museums and galleries that are free to visit).

A family ticket to the Tower of London is £55 (€65), London Zoo is £47.70 (€57) and Madame Tussauds is a stonking £108 (€129).

If you're not a fan of 'Harry Potter' (or the parent of one), it's unlikely you'll think the cost is worth it.

After all, it's not quite a full day out, and there are none of the aforementioned rides, which is a downfall to many.

But if you are a fan, there comes a point at the end of the tour where you're happy to have forked out for the ticket.

As you walk around a darkened corner, accompanied by the orchestral score to the movies and gasps from your companions, the model of Hogwarts Castle is revealed.

This 1:24 scale model was handcrafted by a team of 86 artists, carving the stone turrets and clock towers, finishing each window with fibre optic lights, designed to flicker and move like firelight.

This was the model used for sweeping shots of the school against the Scottish landscape, and the only form of Hogwarts that truly exists.

The scenes that feature the castle are displayed on interactive screens throughout the room, where adults and children linger, enraptured by the elaborate and lifelike scene before them.

If the thought of this does nothing for you, the studio tour will most likely not be for you.

But if the thought of strolling through Diagon Alley and stepping into Dumbledore's office sounds like your kind of day, then you'll find the magic of Hogwarts hard to resist.

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