I’ve got to say I don’t really get the appeal of theme parks built around big Hollywood movies and I think I’ve reconciled myself to never visiting Euro Disney without excessive soul-rending but despite initial misgivings I ended up really impressed with the Harry Potter tour that’s currently running at the Warner Bros. studios at Leavesden in Hertfordshire. This is where they shot the eight films and a couple of the hangar-sized buildings have now been given over to recreations of many of the sets containing literally thousands of the props, models and costumes as well as rooms containing fascinating conceptual art, architectural diagrams and animatronic (and often unnervingly convincing) creatures and false heads. The tour begins with a couple of short films setting the scene and some slightly toe-curling attempts to whip up enthusiasm from the guides (“Whoop if you love Harry Potter!”…err, would it be all right if I just looked vaguely bemused instead?) but this doesn’t last long and once you’ve gone past the Great Hall you’re let off the lead and allowed to wander at your own pace through the wonders on show.
It’s all pretty overwhelming, particularly when you get up close and get the chance to appreciate the sheer artistry and care that’s gone into things like paintings and tapestries and artefacts that hardly get any time to register when you see them onscreen. The potions classroom for example contains about five hundred glass jars all containing different, and carefully labelled, exotic ingredients and the vast “Magic is Might” sculpture that’s glimpsed briefly in the films after Voldemort’s forces have taken over the ministry is truly monumental: a graphic depiction of ordinary working people being crushed by superior force that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mussolini’s Rome. I was surprised at how many of the effects in the films were achieved by physical rather than digital means – the snakes on the door to the Chamber of Secrets pictured above are articulated and can actually move! Most of the exhibits are set out museum style with explanatory texts and links to an optional audio guide but there are interactive opportunities too with a virtual wand tutor and a green screen room in which you can get a photo of yourself apparently riding a broomstick. The tour’s sensibly broken up halfway through with a refreshments pit-stop where you can sample the incredibly sweet butterbeer (a sort of cream soda I think), walk along the wobbly school bridge or get yourself photographed outside what might be the single strangest thing in the whole exhibition – a completely convincing mock-up of 4 Privet Drive, essentially nothing more than a standard suburban terraced house. Nearer the end of the tour you come to what are probably the two highlights: the beautifully shambolic and inviting shop fronts of Diagon Alley and the enormous 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts that was used for long-shots in the films.
This tour’s not cheap but it’s difficult to argue that it’s not value for money for any fan of the series or anyone half-interested in film-making. I spent three hours in there and it felt like I was only skimming the surface of what was on show. I could easily have been in there all day, and may even go back for another look sometime as one of the guides said that they were hoping to refresh the displays with new exhibits periodically.