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Opening on the 31st March 2011, the latest must-see for fans of the boy with the lightning scar is the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, at Leavesdon Studios. Your reviewer has had the fortune of visiting twice already, in both a preview event and after the official opening. I don’t want to spoil too much of the fun, as they say on their own advertising, “secrets will be revealed”, but I do want to give you an idea of what the destination has to offer to both Potter-fanatics and everyone else. (I should probably put a disclaimer in here, if you haven’t already guessed, I am a fully paid up member of the former).
It’s a rather lengthy name for an exhibition isn’t it? But it is important to note, since this is as much a tour of film making as it is of the Harry Potter movie franchise. Differing greatly from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida, this is not a theme park, nor is it designed to make you feel you are part of the Harry Potter fictional world. What it does however is give a fantastic insight into the vast number of people who were involved in bringing the seven books onto the silver screen in eight hugely successful films.
Leavesdon Studios themselves are easy to find, being just off the M25 and M1, not far from Watford. Clear and ample directions are provided on booking tickets, which is done through the website http://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk/. There is plenty of parking at the Studios, and friendly staff welcome you at the entrance and ticket booths if you need to collect your tickets on the day. This will be a pleasant surprise, the customer service was exceptional on both visits.
Prior to entering the tour, which will take you at least 3 hours to walk around, there is a reasonably priced coffee shop serving a limited menu of hot and cold food, a Starbucks coffee kiosk and the wonderful gift shop. Yes, everything is overpriced, but for anyone who knows their Puking Pastilles from their Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, knows which House they would want to be in, or even ever wanted to be on the front cover of The Quibbler, it is a brilliant experience.
Even the gift shop contains original set and prop items, such as Triwizard Tournament banners from The Goblet of Fire and the Gringott’s goblin’s desk featured in The Philosopher’s Stone. Plus, what’s not to love about the opportunity to buy your own replica Firebolt broomstick? £250, in case you were wondering…
Arrive well in advance of your scheduled tour start time (these are every half hour throughout the day) for two reasons, firstly to have a good wander around the aforementioned gift shop, but also because your tour starts promptly at the scheduled time, so you will want to be in the queue to enter in advance. It also gives you a chance to check out Harry’s bedroom under the stairs, complete with toy soldiers and tiny Philosopher’s Stone glasses, which sits just outside the entrance.
The tour begins with two video presentations, a brief one in a holding area (standing) and a second, longer one presented by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in an incredibly comfortable cinema style auditorium. If it wasn’t for what awaited you after the lights come up, it would be hard to leave those seats!
Here is where we reach the reviewer’s conundrum since I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises, and there are two particular “wow” moments. The first comes immediately after the second video finishes, the second is the final room of the tour. Between these are two sound stages and an open air lot, which you are free to browse at your own pace. You need only queue for special photograph opportunities (such as with the triple decker purple Knight Bus) or for the chance to get a little more hands on with a “green screen” experience.
The remainder of the tour is a look, but don’t touch, affair. You are however encouraged to take as many photos as you like, so a good digital camera is recommended, particularly due to varying, and often changing, lighting.
The sound stages (J and K, coincidentally) were those used for filming of the actual films, and some of the sets are set up in situ. Everything on display was used, from Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape’s entire dungeon classroom (complete with cauldrons) to Kenneth Branagh’s wig, worn to play Gilderoy Lockhart in The Chamber of Secrets. The first sound stage focuses on props and sets, with various touch screen displays to offer additional information. There are also numerous enthusiastic tour guides who are available to add a little back story to the varied displays, should you wish (and I recommend this!).
The open air lot in between the sound stages offers a chance for a quick refreshment – Butterbeer is available! – and a chance to look at some larger props and sets such as the aforementioned Knight Bus and No. 4, Privet Drive. If it’s not raining, you will be here for some time taking photos.
The second area focuses on special effects and artwork, including a relatively well acted video presentation in three parts featuring Professor Flitwick himself, Warwick Davies (his best role is still, and always will be, Willow, but I digress). This reveals some of the secrets behind the amazing creature and special effects seen in all the films, such as the dragons of The Goblet of Fire and the Hippogriff Buckbeak from The Prisoner of Azkaban.
This is then followed by a stroll along a very famous street, before a section focused on the amazing talents of the designers and artists who worked on the film. Even a Potterphobe would find the artwork on display fascinating.
This leads you to the final surprise, which I wouldn’t dare spoil. But suffice to say, my own awestruck reaction was validated by whooping, swearing and tears from other visitors!
All in all, the tour is a fantastic experience for Potter fans, and fans of movie making. Someone who hasn’t seen the films would no doubt find their attention waning by the end of a three hour meander through non-interactive displays, but they are all available on DVD, so what’s your excuse?