Warner Bros. Studios in London has opened its doors to the public. Home to the Harry Potter Tour it exhibits sets, costumes, props and more from the much-loved films. In April 2012, I paid it a visit.
J.K. Rowling, as highlighted in glorious hi-def as you leave the magical Harry Potter Tour at London’s Warner Bros. Studios with its aptly named soundstages “J” and “K”, says “the stories we love best do live within us forever.” With the concluding novel – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – released in 2007, and the concluding film in 2011, fans resigned themselves to the end of boy wizard Harry Potter’s adventure. But behind the scenes Warner’s marketing machine was spitting out cogs and blowing fuses in the wake of Rowling’s admission that she was done with the series. No more books. No more films. No more guaranteed multi-million dollar opening weekends for Warner’s most prized franchise of the 2000s.
However in this age of recyclability and the pressure on us all to make a more sustainable world, Warner’s happened across an ingenious idea. 2012 would be the year it opened its doors to fans of wizards, witches and Hogwarts. Instead of only being able to relive the adventure in its book or film form, we could now step foot inside the story.
At Warner Bros. Studios, located at Leavesden just outside central London, two huge soundstages house the Harry Potter Tour. Original sets, costumes and props from all eight films are on display here. Its key hook, beyond the tour’s ability to bring the magic within touching distance, is the fact this is where Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and all the other cast and crew came to work on the films during their studio-based shooting schedules. Indeed, the excitement begins almost immediately when you sit in surely the most comfortable cinema ever constructed where a film is shown exhibiting the best bits of the movies. The three main actors – Radcliffe, Grint and Watson – speak about their experiences of working at the studios and what it was like to shoot there every day. At the conclusion of the film the three actors enter the “tour” through the doors leading into Hogwarts’ Great Hall, at which point the cinema screen rises up revealing those very doors. And so begins a thoroughly captivating, educative, inspiring and exciting journey behind the scenes of one cinema’s most imaginative and enchanting franchises ever made.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Alan Rickman in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
This is probably a good time to admit I haven’t been a Harry Potter fan as long as most. I never read the early books, and still have no intention to (I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and was immediately put off by its simplistic approach and pre-teen target market), but as the characters have matured so have the books. Despite feeling that J.K. Rowling treaded water with the Half-Blood Prince, I was mightily impressed by Harry’s final adventure and concluding novel Deathly Hallows. Admittedly, these were the first Harry Potter books I read and my motive for reading them was less literary-minded and more geared by greed to find out what might happen to this teenage wizard. You see, this was around the time Harry Potter’s fifth adventure appeared on film – The Order of the Phoenix – a release that coincided with my sudden addiction to the fascinating goings-on at Hogwarts school.
“2012 is the year Warner opens its doors to fans of wizards, witches and Hogwarts. Instead of only being able to relive the Harry Potter adventure in book or film form, we can now step foot inside the story.”
Back in the early part of the 2000s, when the Potter Universe was taking shape on our cinema screens, I was too “cool” for this childish, derivative tale of broomsticks and wand-waving. I was a Lord of the Rings man, driven by my admiration for the brilliant creative prowess of filmmaker Peter Jackson and Tolkien’s more accomplished, more widely loved, more influential stories of fantasy and adventure. Therefore, Mr Potter and Rowling’s work was an annoying road bump that kept getting in the way of winter theatrical programming. But then Lord of the Rings reached its end (forcing us to endure its multiple conclusions) and the fantasy-adventure market was left open to Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter film series. My thirst for more magic could not be quenched by Jackson’s long-winded home video release which promised new versions of the films and additional DVD features to appear sometime after the initial home video run. So, the question was: do you wait for the lavishly packaged, feature-bursting release, or buy the initial run, or buy both. It stank of commercial robbery. I bought the cheaper first releases (the ones I loved in theatres) and have yet to see Jackson’s Director’s Preferred Versions, which, if not released in cinemas initially should merit a refund on my cinema tickets!
“These adventures of good triumphing over evil may join the dots of well-worn narrative construction but feel fresh and exciting, muddying the water between children’s films and those aimed at an older audience, reminding adults of that long-lost innocence fuelled by over-active, impressionable imagination.”
So Harry Potter – the name I was for so long sick of hearing – came crashing into my life one Christmas Eve when Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone if you’re American) was screened by the BBC on television. I happened across it a couple of minutes into the story as Harry was being introduced to his “room” – ie. the cupboard under the stairs. There was a humour about the set-up that was more cynical than I imagined while director Chris Columbus’s production design and artistic direction was immediately attention-grabbing. And this was before I’d seen the school, or platform nine and three-quarters, or the Great Hall, or Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, or the terrifying over-sized live game of chess. Suddenly, a set of stories I thought I couldn’t possibly be interested in, became unique escapist works of great imagination. These adventures of good triumphing over evil may join the dots of well-worn narrative construction but feel fresh and exciting, muddying the water between children’s films and those aimed at an older audience, reminding adults of that long-lost innocence fuelled by over-active, impressionable imagination. The next day Chamber of Secrets played on television and I was forever hooked.
And so the announcement by studio Warner Bros., sometime in 2011, that it was to open its doors to the public, was music to my ears. And, as made clear by the mad dash for tickets and an over-subscribed website when they went on sale, so was everyone else. Indeed, as soon as the day arrived to buy tickets, the website kept crashing. It was the only way to purchase your entry, and for many, the dream of seeing the magic behind the movie was becoming more distant with every “website cannot be displayed” error message. But I pursued the dream. Eventually, I managed to get through and pick a time and date for my visit.
As April 2012 arrived with it so did my Harry Potter Tour. You’ll find Warner Bros. Leavesden-based studios well signposted off the M25 motorway. I also noticed a convenient public bus service. You won’t be able to miss the bus with its Harry Potter makeover. On entry, after witnessing the great girth of the studios from the outside, with its two main soundstages aptly named “J” and “K”, you find yourself witness to huge posters featuring the key actors sat above a coffee shop, the main tour entrance, and a suitably overpriced memorabilia store. Our thirst was quenched thanks to Costa Coffee’s new drive-thru service and, since we were heading into mainland Europe the next day, couldn’t afford to be spending money in a shop whose better name would be Harry Potter’s Daylight Robbery.
So the queue called on us. Since each tour and ticket has a time and date attached to it, you don’t get the sense of over-crowding like at other well-known movie-related attractions (clears throat and utters the words “Orlando” and “Disney”). However, one of the things I love about Disney’s MGM Studios in Florida is the attention to detail given to the areas where patrons queue. Likewise, at the Harry Potter Tour, you are immediately introduced to Harry’s home away from Hogwarts – his bedroom beneath the stairs. Following an initial wait in line, your group is bottled into a small waiting area where a tour representative introduces you to the studios, explains a little about what you will see, and then plays a short film featuring some of the producers telling you about how the franchise came into being. After this, it is on to one of the most comfortable theatres you’re ever likely to sit in. Here, another short film is played but his one is a little more spectacular.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint make their own introductions, discussing how the studio base was a home away from home for them growing up. They spent many months at this very location making the eight films we know and love today. Their introductions are accompanied by invigorating footage from the films, the state-of-the-art surround sound gushing with the iconic theme music. If you weren’t in the mood for Hogwarts before this, there’s no denying you will be now. Indeed, the best is yet to come as the three actors stand before the ornately decorated doors to the Great Hall and welcome you inside. As they enter the doors to the Great Hall the cinema screen lifts and you are presented with the actual doors themselves as the tour representative invites you forth. My heart skipped a beat as I frantically tried to focus my camera!
And the tour begins. I witnessed one young teenage girl gushing with tears as she was picked to push open the Great Hall’s elaborately designed doors with their gothic splendour illuminated by expertly orchestrated studio lighting. The first part of the tour involves a walk through the Great Hall without, it has to be admitted, the floating candles. The tour guide mentions that was added in post-production by the special-effects team as if reassuring us we aren’t missing something. The first thing that strikes you is the detail – everything from the goblets on the tables to the tables themselves and the faux stonework depicting the mascots of each school house from Gryffindor’s lion to Ravenclaw’s eagle to Slytherin’s serpent and Hufflepuff’s badger.
Then it’s on to one of the main soundstages that has been turned into a warehouse of Harry Potter artefacts. From intimate items from Goblet of Fire’s feast (a brilliantly designed crystal assortment of glasses to a chocolate dessert made out of painted resin) to Order of the Phoenix’s Umbridge-inspired student rules (as presented by an ever-increasing number of plaques nailed to the walls of the school). This area is a veritable treasure trove of Hogwarts magic from Dumbledore’s office to the Gryffindor Boys’ Dormitory and Common Room, the Griffin Stairwell, the Potions Classroom, and the Marble Staircase. There’s also Umbridge’s Ministry of Magic office, the Ministry of Magic’s transportation flues, the Weasley’s house, the Chamber of Secrets’ Door and my favourite – Hagrid’s Hut. The attention to the most minute detail is astonishing. I was especially intrigued by Hagrid’s Hut and the Weasley’s Burrow given how the smallest details, most of which will never be seen on film, are given such intricate makeovers from the individual slates on the roofs to items on shelves and tables. It puts the design team’s efforts into context, highlighting the skill, time and effort put into bringing this story to visual life.
After this soundstage you are led outside where you’ll find the Knight Bus, the Weasley’s car, the Hogwarts Bridge, Harry’s house at 10 Privet Drive and his family home. Here you can join the long queue of kids all trying to get a photo inside the Weasley’s Ford Anglia. I should add you can also get yourself photographed flying around on a broomstick using green screen technology but I guessed the prices for these photos would be extortionate and moved passed this section quickly. Plus, I would have had to elbow my way through a gaggle of giddy children just to get to the door.
The next stage of the tour introduces us to some of the masks and animatronics used in the films and also gives you a great photo opportunity to be pictured with Dobby who, unfortunately, stands behind glass. I suppose it is a fitting final resting place – standing in state at Warner Bros. Studios – for this unassuming two-foot-tall hero.
This interesting section precedes the real highlight of the tour for me – Diagon Alley. As intricately designed as everything else, Diagon Alley could be a real street if you replaced the studio lights with a starlit sky. It truly is a wonderful set with each shop so authentically realised, from Olivanders and Gringott’s Bank to the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezers, Mr Mullpepper’s Apothecary and Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment. You have to pinch yourself and suppress the urge to enter Gringott’s to make a deposit or buy one of the Weasley’s magic potions to impress a friend or even stop by the Quidditch supply shop for a new Snitch or Bludger. The beauty of the tour is the relaxed nature of it – aided by each ticket having a specific time – which reduces overcrowding and makes for an even more pleasant, unrushed walk through this behind the scenes world. It was, therefore, quite a job prising myself away from Diagon Alley. I could have stayed there all day.
The next and final stage of the tour features concept artwork for the various characters and set designs including Hogwarts school itself. Then it is on to one of the most impressive parts of the exhibit. A model of Hogwarts school is viewed from a walkway that passes around it from top to bottom. This fantastic piece of production design must be thirty feet wide and twenty-five feet tall – it really is a grand, imposing piece of set. Its size allows you a birds-eye view of Hogwarts while the circular walkway takes you all the way around allowing visitors to appreciate everything from the individually “planted” trees in the school grounds to the tiny details on the windows and doors to the grandiose tower and spires.
And the tour comes to an end. My advice would be to take your time in each section as you can’t go back. If you want to make use of your three-hour window I’d suggest spending at least the first two-hours in the Great Hall, the first soundstage, the exterior props area and Diagon Alley. You only really need half an hour on the final concept design section along with its model of Hogwarts. That said, without ever rushing, we got through the whole tour in about one hour forty-five minutes.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter is currently one of London’s most appealing movie-related attractions. After months of waiting, the behind the scenes exhibit has opened with understandable acclaim. The simple layout and intelligently structured tour ensures visitors are never rushed and crowds are kept to a minimum while the sheer volume of props, sets, costumes and other attractions make for a desirable, rewarding experience. Indeed, while Harry Potter film fans will take the most out of a visit, anyone with an enthusiasm for the medium and a passion for creativity, imagination, and the unsung heroes such as the production designers, artists, model makers, puppeteers, engineers, costume makers and all those men and women that appear on the credit roll after the actors, will inevitably enjoy the tour.
For more information on the tour and to book your visit – check out the official website here
More on the tour: Check out our Top 10 Things to See at Warner Bros. Harry Potter Tour
More on the film locations, sets and props: Delve further into the films by visiting the locations
And Check out our visit to York’s Train Museum to see the Hogwarts Express
More on the films: Read our review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2
Written by Daniel Stephens.