A self-guided tour of the studio where the eight Harry Potter films were made. A vast hangar features all of the sets – starting with the Great Hall, currently decked out for Christmas with sparkling trees, tables laden with festive food and, for the first time, an ice-sculpture, icicles and a floating orchestra from the Yule Ball (until 28 January). After being ushered through the Great Hall, you are free to go at your own pace. The Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, with a cabinet of 800 hand-labelled vials of “memories”, Hagrid’s hut, the Potions classroom, lined with 500 bottles, the Weasley’s Burrow, Diagon Alley, the dark and misty Forbidden Forest (watch out for Aragog lurking in the shadows), and Hogwarts Express are all there. We ate our lunch in the “backlot” outdoor area in front of Privet Drive, Hogwarts Bridge and the triple-decker Knight Bus, before moving on to a section dedicated to art and design showing the many intricate creatures, artwork and architectural models specially created for the films.
JK Rowling invited Alan Rickman round for tea to explain Professor Snape’s narrative arc to give the actor a unique insight into the character. He was the only person on set who knew the full story.
The sense of scale. Some 4,000 people worked on the films – the most successful movie series ever – over a 10-year period. Among them were 50 costumers, 40 artists, draughtsman and illustrators, 20 make-up artists and a feather expert who was brought in to consult on how best to create a Hippogriff. In addition 250 animals were trained to portray the characters’ various pets, among them a team of Neapolitan Mastiffs who played Fang. My son (7) and friend (8) were too young to hang around reading about the meticulous detailing of the sets and props, which for me was the most intriguing part, but they loved sitting in the Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia, touching different types of fake snow (another Christmas feature) and the wand practice. Children of a sensitive nature may find some of the masks and creatures scary – and the bloodied body of Charity Burbage hanging above the Malfoy’s table before being fed to Voldemort’s snake was the suff of nightmares.
We took our own but there are two options – the Studio Cafe at the entrance and the Backlot Cafe – both offering sandwiches and hot lunches (soup £3.50; burger £7.75; vegetable pasta £5.50; children’s meals from £5.50). A glass of Butterbeer, which Harry thinks is the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted, costs £3.95 – or £6.95 for a souvenir tankard.
I had already refused to fork out £14 for a photo of my son and his friend on a broomstick and successfully steered them past the Railway Shop opposite Hogwarts Express. But getting through the huge gift emporium at the end of our tour was a challenge on a par with some of Potter’s exploits. Amazingly, we managed it, running the gauntlet of souvenir wands (£29), mugs (£14.95), sorting hats (£29), fluffy owls, Quidditch paraphernalia, quills, jewellery, books, games, toys, stationery, keyrings – you name it – without a fight. I agreed to sweets – before checking the price. A packet of Bertie Bott’s every-flavour jelly beans and two chocolate frogs cost £27!
It’s 15 minutes by train from Euston (1hr 9mins from Birmingham), to Watford Junction from where a 15-minute shuttle bus ride transports visitors to the studios (£2.50 return). Parking is free if you travel by car.
A family saver ticket is £118 (two adults, two children or one adult, three children; tickets must be bought in advance) – so comparable with a West End show and some of London’s more expensive attractions. It is unique experience and you could easily spend the best part of a day there. Fans will not be disappointed.
It’s timed entry but once you’re in, you can spend as long as you like. The record, according to one guide, is 14 hours. First tour 9am; last tour and closing times vary. Closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
9/10. A genuinely fascinating insight into movie-making. Even my partner, who’s no fan of the stories and was muttering about the queues as we waited to go in, enjoyed it.