Oversized steel toecap boots, a hard hat and a high visibility jacket may not have been the most magical of outfits in which to get a glimpse of the new Harry Potter studio tour, but seeing as they were still building it around our ears, the Health & Safety chap insisted.
Leavesden Studios in Watford, where wizards, witches and goblins roamed for the decade the Potter films were being made, is a strange old set of contrasts. Look on Google Earth and you’re confronted with a pretty uninspiring view; brown fields of old aircraft hangars, 70s portacabins, car parks and wire fencing.
Inside those warehouse hangars, though, is where The Magic™ happens. Plasterboard and polystyrene are bewitched into brave new worlds, captured on celluloid, then trundled away to multiplexes the world over.
If I were Mark Cousins, I expect I’d be able to use the disparity to come up with a brilliant metaphor about the true nature of filmmaking, something about enchanted storytelling going on in corrugated iron sheds, all delivered in a lyrical Irish lilt. I’m not Mark Cousins, though, so all I’ll say, in a disappointingly un-lilting Surrey accent, is this: blimey, what a lot of work went into making those Potter films.
Warner Bros’ new attraction seems to be aimed at provoking that “blimey, what a lot of work…” reaction from visitors, showcasing the extraordinary lengths Stuart Craig’s art department went to in creating the film’s universe. Going around the attraction, you’ll notice details that will have passed by even the most fervent fans of the films, the statue of a knight holding not a sword and shield but a quaffle and broomstick outside the Great Hall was one such for me.
The second reaction the tour is designed to approach is no doubt a hyperventilating sense of “OMG! Dumbledore’s actual chair!” With more than three hours of fancy-free wandering around original sets after the introductory part of the tour, we imagine you’ll be hearing, and feeling that more than once.
I’ll even admit to experiencing the odd mental OMG as we were led around what, right now, has to be the most exciting shed in England. Under dustsheets lurked cupboards under the stairs, emerald green Ministry of Magic fireplaces and four-poster Hogwarts dorm beds (which apparently most of the young male cast had grown out of by film four, hence shots of students sitting on, but rarely laying in beds from Goblet Of Fire onwards).
What will we get to see when the covers come off for the Harry Potter Studio Tour next March? Well, on sound stages J and K (a neat coincidence we’re assured) visitors will be able to wander around the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s office, the Ministry of Magic, Gryffindor common room, Snape’s Potions classroom, Professor Umbridge’s office, 4 Privet Drive, the Weasley kitchen and more, as well as seeing props, costumes, creatures and effects galore.
We caught only a glimpse, with many of the exhibits still locked up in storage containers waiting to be unpacked. The first unremarkable corner we rounded led to the very remarkable entrance to the Great Hall, complete with flambeaux and teachers’ table. We had to tread carefully, and in the middle of the original flagstones, which were being re-laid and grouted as we stepped gingerly on.
Next up was another plasterboard passageway into the vast sound stage, which is soon to house a bunch of sets. One circular stud wall construction announced itself as nothing in particular, but for some unusual graffiti: the word “Dumbledore” spraypainted messily on its surface. Dumbledore indeed, his office in fact, complete with sorting hat, sword of Gryffindor, pensieve, astrolabe and the works. We didn’t have to give a magical password to enter, just a promise not to break anything.
Break anything we didn’t, but we did get a cheeky sit in Dumbledore’s chair, the actual chair, as I was reminded by Warwick Davis, that was once home to Michael Gambon’s magical bum…
I’ve just sat in Dumbledore’s chair…
Warwick Davis: And that’s the actual chair, so his magical bum has been on that chair!
[Everyone grins quietly for a moment, in contemplation of Michael Gambon’s magical bum…]
Which part of the tour are you all most looking forward to sharing with fans?
Tom Felton: The Great Hall has become a bit of a Mecca of Hogwarts really, so much has happened there. It’s one of the only sets which has been constant for the last ten years, they never moved it, it’s the same place, the one that’s there is the exact one.
They’re laying the original flagstones back down as we speak…
TF: It’s really quite special to think how many thousands of children and wonderful actors have walked over those stones over the years and they’ve been preserved, so that’s definitely a place that’s very special.
Natalia Tena: The potions room, because I was never in the Hogwarts part of it so I really just want to get close up and see the weird things in the jars and all the weird cylinders. I think a lot of people are going to be really happy to see those rooms.
Oliver Phelps: The thing I’m looking forward to sharing the most is just how it is a set, as a lot of people will just go on and just think it’s what you see inside it, but you’ll see the scaffolding behind and everything, which I think a lot of people won’t be expecting.
Bonnie Wright: You get the whole story of how it works. Because what’s there at the moment are actually the sets that we know so well, though it’s not yet fully made. I’m sure what they will do very well is the dynamic of the experience, because if you’re just plonked in the middle of the set, it’s quite disorientating and confusing, so what will be the best thing are the stages of description. I think it will be a full experience in which you see a lot of things which are never shown in terms of the production design, in terms of pencil drawings as to how this has come to this.
We heard on the tour that the Hogwarts students were encouraged to graffiti the tables in the great hall to get a more realistic effect, were any of you responsible for that?
TF: Yes, I did several times but I got rather harshly told off for it at the time, so I expect someone’s been busy prising my old work out. But I used to do it in character, just for fun, just a big “Draco” or something of a Slytherinesque nature. It’s many a year ago now but I remember getting told off for it, for influencing others.
Did you get detention?
TF: Exactly, in the dungeon!
James Phelps: Blimey, I didn’t think there was graffiti. I think they might have put wear and tear on them but not carving your names.
BW: Because they obviously bought new tables and they had to look like they were hundreds of years old, so they did things like smacking them with big, thick chains and dropping things on them to scratch it. They had to relay the varnish every year because people would pick away at it.
Julie Walters: Did anyone put their initials on it?
BW: I’m sure people did, but you wouldn’t see it again the next day.
OP: I did actually on a door for the stage out there and when I came back, that stage is now gone, so my legacy is gone. –Sets like the Great Hall must hold a lot of memories for you all…
WD: My first day of filming was actually on the Great Hall set, sat in that chair that I sat in yesterday. I hadn’t sat there for a couple of years. Just sitting there and thinking back to that day, looking down the table at Maggie Smith and Richard Harris, Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane, it was like, wow, I’m amongst some great company here, this is amazing.
Little did I know at that point we were going to continue on and do ten years’ worth and eight movies and it would become an amazing adventure. Sitting in that chair was really special. The cutlery on the table is what we used, and the beauty of it is that everything is custom-made; they weren’t nipping down to the local hardware shop and buying things. All the props were made to be unique and special and people can now really get a close-up look at the detail in everything, things that they don’t see in the films.
I think that’s great, we all get credit on screen for being in the movies, but the people who create all of this don’t necessarily get their moment and I think having the attraction here is a chance for people to come and see their work.
TF: So much effort and love has gone into it. They spent six months doing a bit of jewellery that wouldn’t even be seen on camera. That’s what’s nice is that now people can come along and appreciate all this intricate detail that’s been put in that were probably unnecessary for the films but…
WD: Like the chandeliers in the last film in Gringotts, I just thought, well, they’ve gone and got some chandeliers, but they were handmade. It’s just unbelievable.
TF: Were they even in shot?
NT: Yeah, the dragon gets tangled up in them
WD: Hanging all of those little droplets in there, it’s just stunning. You know in the vault, all the goblets that multiply, you think it’s all computers, but no, they made thousands of these goblets.
Now they’re all locked up in shipping containers in the car park waiting to be put on display?
TF: I’m pretty sure they are.
WD: When people come round the attraction, they slowly fill up the room…
TF: I think there must be a Warner Bros/Leavesden version of Gringotts where they have big vaults of it all.
WD: No, they’ve just got Hermione’s bag and they just put everything in that, everything’s in there [laughs].
Go on then, tell us what would have to be added to the tour so Potter fans can have your personal Leavesden experience of working on the films? Would they have to have a particular coffee from the canteen or sneak out for a fag somewhere?
WD: Yeah, all of that! Sausages as well.
NT: A fry-up!
WD: A sausage roll, a cup of tea… For the authentic actor’s experience you need to get here at four in the morning, then just stand around until about four in the afternoon before you actually go and start having a look round.
TF: In full goblin costume, as well. Then dye your hair blonde, get your roots touched up…
WD: People can walk around behind the set where the scaffolding is and where you would really hang out and you’d see, you know, grips reading a copy of the Sun, though, I don’t think there will be one of those…
TF: But they can visualise it all.
James Phelps: Bacon sarnie in the morning for me.
BW: On any film set, endless tea.
JP: Digestives, custard creams…
OP: The five o’clock doughnut. When you’re starting to flag and then that was a pick-me-up.
JW: Mine would be a bowl of porridge and a cup of green tea…
So that’s the catering sorted then. Can you tell us which props won’t be on display on the tour because they’re on your mantle pieces?
OP: They’re all there.
JP: Everyone wanted a wand, and we were hoping on the last day they’d see “You take that with you”.
OP: We were dropping hints…
JP: But when all the bigwigs from Warner Bros were over we kind of “It’d be nice to have our wands wouldn’t it?” and they were like, “Yeah, it would be good wouldn’t it” but that was it.
JW: That was the end of it.
It’s an outrage. So, which is the prop or set that impressed you the most? Is it the wands?
JW: The Weasley set of course. I wanted to live in it, it was like a home. It didn’t feel like a set, it was gorgeous, you couldn’t be on there long enough, the detail was enormous.
BW: One thing I wonder if they’ll ever show, was in Stuart Craig’s office above his desk he had this great drawing, just plain paper and felt tip pen, the first time that Jo and he met to sit down and discuss, she just did a really simple, simple map, like Hagrid’s house, Hogwarts, lake, Quidditch Pitch. It was literally just her drawing of where she knew in her mind where it was all going to be. It was above his desk throughout the whole film.
The last time we saw you all was at the premiere before the after-party which Natalia’s band played at. What was the mood like that evening?
NT: I stole a hog.
An entire hog?
NT: Basically, there were canapés they were giving everyone and drinks, and I was so nervous, because I was like, “I can’t screw this up,” and I was trying to drink hot water when all I wanted was a glass of champagne.
WD: All you wanted was a hog…
NT: But outside they’d done this massive hog roast, and then there were just hogs for display, not, like for cutting up, and I was like, “Mine!” And after I’d played I got a bottle of champagne because we’d made friends with all the staff at the sound check so I just took loads of bottles of champagne and then I at the end of the night I put a hog in a plastic bag and nobody stopped me.
Have you still got it?
NT: I ate it in a week.
WD: Oh you did eat this hog?
NT: I ate the entire thing. I made sandwiches for all the band.
TF: Wasn’t it a fake hog?
NT: No, it was an actual pig. My dog loved me.
WD: I bet all the dogs in the neighbourhood were following you…
Was the mood a bit like an end-of-term disco? Were people crying on the stairs and hugging each other in toilets?
TF: Everyone was very happy and proud…
WD: [Incredulous] Hugging each other in toilets?! [laughs]
TF: [To Warwick] Come on, we had a little hug in the cubicle [laughter]
WD: I’d say joy, more than sort of sad or missing each other, we were celebrating the ten years of achievement.
TF: I think everyone felt very proud to be there.
BW: It was sad because although it was a celebration of the film and what it’s done, there was a real sense of pride in the project, it was a real pat on the back sort of moment for everyone. About four months after the premiere happened, which is, about now, you feel like “I should be starting again”, like “when’s my costume fitting?” [Everyone agrees]
JP: The after party backed onto the Thames and it had a great view of London and I was looking at the new Shard building out there and I thought, that must just been an idea when we started making the films. It’s like a montage in your head of the last ten years racing by.
BW: I thought, I’m not going to cry, I’m not going to cry in the film and I didn’t so I thought, yup, I’ve made it, then through the party, got in the car, on my way home, I… [mimes crying].
What do you imagine the 2021 ten year reunion party will be like?
NT: If I’m not dead, hopefully I’ll be having a massive party.
TF: I’m actually writing the Harry Potter on Ice adaptation so I’m going to get us all on ice [laughs].
Have we got the scoop on that?
TF: [Still laughing] No, no I’m kidding.
WD: We’ll probably come down here. It’d be a great place to celebrate ten years of Harry Potter.
TF: I hope they have yearly reunions to be honest with you, because it’s not a part of my life I’m looking forward to saying goodbye to for a decade or something, so fingers crossed there’ll be reunions back at Hogwarts for us before then.
JW: Will I still be alive? [Laughing]
JP: They still won’t have given us our wands!
OP: Maybe they’re waiting until the ten-year anniversary to give us our wands. This would certainly be a good place to do reunions and see how they’ve kept the sets here. A big banquet.
BW: Have it here, have a knees up in the Great Hall.
JW: Yes, we should be given the wands shouldn’t we! Oh yes, get the fires going, light the torches, marvellous!
Sounds pretty marvellous to us too. Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Natalia Tena, James and Oliver Phelps, Julie Walters and Bonnie Wright, thank you very much.
Booking is now open for the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour, which opens on the 31st of March 2012. From the sneak peek we saw, it’s going to be magic.