With very little knowledge or interest in the story (I’ve not read any of the books and watched only a couple of the films), the Watford-based attraction was going to have to offer a lot to convince me of the relatively expensive price tag.
A World War II Aerodrome come Rolls-Royce engine factory, ‘Warner Brothers Leavesden’ began it’s new life as a film studio when the team behind James Bond came across the disused site in the mid-nineties. In desperate need of an alternative to the fully-booked Pinewood, the site was hastily transformed for the filming of ‘Goldenye’. By the start of the new millennium, the first Harry Potter film was in production there.
I can get a little carried-away at such attraction, and managed to spend five hours wandering amongst the exhibits
Ten years (and eight Potter films) later, the Hollywood studio invested more than £100m in the site, and became the only one to own a permanent European base in the UK. But they didn’t just convert the eight existing stages in to state of the art facilities for future productions – they created two entirely new stages to house the iconic sets, props and costumes of ‘the most successful film series of all time’ as a permanent exhibition.
Half-hourly tours, of which I joined the third, are booked in advance and go some way to stagger the 5,000 visitors that can visit everyday. My first surprise, however, was to find that I wasn’t really on a tour at all. After a short video introduction from Potter, Weasley and Granger themselves, we entered the full-size set of the ‘great hall’ – an impressive sight, but after a few-minutes our guide disappeared and left us to roam as we wished for the rest of the day.
I saw this as a good thing, as upon leaving the great hall, I soon realised that the experience would be more than walking from ‘room’ to ‘room’ – beautiful models, and other production paraphernalia amongst the larger sets and props, I was able to get lost in the details of the process.
I can get a little carried-away at such attraction, and managed to spend five hours wandering amongst the exhibits – far more than the suggested three, but there wasn’t an aspect of the film-making process that failed to fascinate me. There are some obvious stand-out pieces, many at full-size; a huge animatronic creature that I now know to be a ‘hippogriff’; even the entire ‘Diagon Alley’, but there are so many prosthetics, costumes, drawings, videos and other things to explore.
A small green-screen area, was the only let-down for me. A large queue snaked around booths where you could ‘fly a broom over Hogwarts’ and buy the particularly tacky footage for £30 a pop – it felt at odds to the high-quality exhibits around it. I suspect it was the highlight for many visitors though, especially the younger members, so I should probably be a little more forgiving. It was saved slightly by footage of the actors themselves filming against a green screen too – another great behind the scenes insight.
A particular highlight for me was the scale models throughout the exhibition, especially the early stage ‘whites’ (as I now know them to be called), that are still constructed in incredible detail. A display of graphic design obviously caught my attention – newspapers, sweet-packets, labels, cereal boxes, book jackets, badges, certificates, hand-written letters, posters – all crafted to perfection.
The most successful film series of all time seems to have translated in to the most successful film-based exhibition of all time. A five-star review from me.