“Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place.”
So wrote JK Rowling of her boy wizard hero, as he embarked on his magical journey at Hogwarts. It’s a line that resonates with the average Muggle when visiting the Warner Bros Studio Tour.
Situated in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, just off the M25, it’s not the most accessible or glamorous of locations. And from the outside, it’s as thrilling as your average out-of-town retail park, but step through the hulking tin facade and you enter a world of wonder.
Before we go any further, you should know that this is no ride-stuffed theme park – you’ll need to go to Universal Studios in Orlando or Osaka for those kind of Potter thrills. The emphasis here is on the sets and props used in the movies, with a few opportunities to place yourself at the centre of the action.
Rather than spoiling the fantasy, this demystification makes you appreciate what you see on screen more: the mechanised serpentine locks on the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets actually worked; each of the thousands of wand boxes in Olivander’s shop were individually labelled; and Hagrid’s head wasn’t actually real – well, some of the time, anyway.
If you don’t know your Pensieve from your Patronus charm, then you might not get the most out of this experience, but you’ll still appreciate the effort that went into the franchise becoming one of the biggest box-office draws of all time.
Aside from the big show pieces (more of which later), the joy here is peering around Dumbledore’s office, the Griffindor common room and Weasley homestead The Burrow. Likewise, spotting such familiar objects as the actual Goblet of Fire, Tom Riddle’s Diary (pierced by Basilisk fang) and a Golden Snitch. And rather than looking a bit cheaply made when viewed up close, the detail amazes.
That level of artistry carries through to the display devoted to graphic design. Although easily overlooked as you head to the cafe for refreshments (you can bring your own food and drink, but don’t forego the opportunity to sample the Butterbeer), it features everything from witty mock adverts and propaganda posters to Cheeri Owls cereal boxes and confectionery (the “U-No-Poo” constipation sweets being a family favourite). Each item may have only been glimpsed in the films, but they look like works of art in their own right.
Although billed as a tour, there’s very little shepherding around or prompts to “Keep up at the back.” A couple of short films – one introduced by the stars of the show, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson – are followed by a theatrical pause as you steel yourself to enter the Great Hall of Hogwarts. And mightily impressive it is, too.
From there, you’re on your own, free to view the exhibits at your own pace (audio guides are an optional, paid extra, but far from essential). “It should take you about three and half hours to go around,” the guide says. We were there for six – and the time flew by.
We Brits may be dab hands at queuing, but it doesn’t mean we enjoy it. Fortunately, the only time this comes into play is at the green-screen film booths, where you (okay, your kids) can mount a broomstick and, through the magic of computer wizardry, be filmed flying across the Thames, mountains and the like. It’ll set you back £25 to purchase your CGI ride on DVD, making the £14 price tag for a photo a lot more tempting.
There are plenty of ways to part with your money as you make your way around the exhibition (ask yourself, do you really need a Professor Flitwick reproduction wand?), but the thrifty visitor can still come away with some choice mementos from their day. Photo opportunities are everywhere, from the chance to sit on Hagrid’s motorbike and sidecar, to pushing a luggage trolley through the wall to Platform 9 3/4.
Be sure to save plenty of space on your camera for the big exhibits. If the Great Hall had you smiling, then Diagon Alley will have you positively beaming with delight, with Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes the highlight. Newly added in 2015, there’s also the Hogwarts Express itself. And quite the strangest thing you’ll see all day is people taking selfies outside the entrance of the Dursley’s anonymous-looking abode on Privet Drive. Then again, a suburban house is quite a novelty in this magical realm.
It’s worth remembering that after the first couple of film instalments, the story took on a darker hue (from the Goblet of Fire onwards, the were all certificated 12). The same goes for some of the exhibits here; some of which are genuinely frightening. Families with small children may wish to give the Dark Arts area a miss. And there were a few worried-sounding whimpers to be heard when we passed through the area devoted to prosthetics and animatronics. It may be fascinating for an adult to see disembodied heads lined up, but it’s the stuff of nightmares for those less able to separate fact from fiction.
There is so much stuff to see here that you’ll probably miss something the first time around. Seasonal events, such as a Halloween scare-up for half term and a snowy makeover for Christmas, plus the addition of new displays, also increases the likelihood of a return visit.
Although travelling home in a bewitched, flying Ford Anglia would have been the icing on the cake, my daughters – aged ten and six – were left spellbound enough by their day. And the tinkling, music-box melody of Hedwig’s Theme was playing around my head afterwards, suggesting that the experience had worked its magic on me, too.
As anyone with a working knowledge of Polyjuice Potion will confirm, looks can be deceiving. It may have the appearance of a corrugated blot on the landscape, but the site of the Warner Bros Studio Tour is a cathedral to British craftsmanship, technical know-how and creative inspiration. And as a showcase for the talents of our much-envied film industry, nothing else comes close.
1. Watch all the films first – there are a few plot-spoilers here, and no-one likes those
2. Book your visit well in advance – weekends and school holidays get especially busy
3. Give yourself plenty of time to look around – you’ll need a day to take it all in
4. Pick up a free activity passport at the information desk – it’ll occupy the kids, and act as a souvenir
5. Tell the staff if it’s your birthday – there may be perks
6. Avoid wearing lime-green – you may look odd sans limbs in your broomstick-ride pictures
7. Butterbeer is super-sweet and a bit of an acquired taste – so maybe share a glass to see if it suits
8. Bring a decent camera – one that can cope with low light
9. Take advantage of the free cloakroom – dump those extra bags and coats
10. Get chatty with the staff – they may be able to show you some of the props close up
This review was first published on 24th October 2015.