I don’t tend to trust books that are ubiquitously popular. It’s why I came very reluctantly and very late to Dan Brown (when I read Da Vinci Code, it only confirmed my worst suspicions: watered down Foucault’s Pendulum). It’s why one of my students had to recommend, pester and finally bully me into reading The Hunger Games. I somehow feel that if everyone’s reading it, there must be something wrong with it, as though there is some embedded message washing over us like waves of radiation as we read: we must read this book, we must read this book. When it comes to books that receive near universal approbation, I feel near enough to the same way that Henry Fielding felt about Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.
It is for this reason that I came late the Harry Potter phenomenon. I just didn’t trust throngs of commuters furtively hiding a tattered, well thumbed copy of what was initially known as a children’s book obviously behind the cover of a shiny new copy of War and Peace. Or worse still, trying to dignify their choice of reading material with an ‘adult cover’ as they were later published.
But, we all come to a point in our lives when we need pure narrative, something just to envelope ourselves in and in which to pleasantly laze away our hours after a day, or say a university course that involves a pressure cooker of thought for months to years on end. My wife was at just such a point at the end of her degree when she picked up the JK Rowling saga. I scoffed dismissively for years, but you build up a curiosity. You run into a sort of domestic critical mass, you pick up the book one day and you start reading and you find you don’t want to leave a world in which magic exists. I wasn’t hooked from the start, but I was hooked when I finally started.
I mean really hooked as well. All the midnight openings and launch parties, adult and child covers, and the whole magic hat full of the Potter universe. We once stood outside of The East Side Bookshop in Brick Lane with its shutters nearly closed at 2 am with our friend Aoife, driven to get Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, begging to be let in to pay our £10.99 to take home the volume and consume the latest in the saga.
And now, with a seven year old son of my own who is consuming the books quicker than you can down a pint of pumpkin juice at the start of the school year feast (he’s currently on The Order of The Phoenix), we find ourselves in close proximity to where the magic all happened in the film adaptation of these spellbinding tales. And as luck happens, our very good friend Vikki King, worked on the first three films, making the puppetry for house elves and owls and basilisks (Oh My!) and has a son who just happens to be our little American Londoner’s schoolmate.
So it was off to Watford in Northwest London and the Warner Brothers Studios where the films were made to immerse ourselves in movie magic, wander wide eyed through The Great Hall, stroll past Harry’s Gryffindor dormitory with its four poster beds and it’s prep school charm, take turns riding atop a broomstick in front of a green screen on which the good employees at The HP Experience could superimpose all manner of backgrounds to make it look as though you were flying right over the Thames, through a stormy quidditch match, or banking with the winding train line through the middle of the country speeding towards Hogwarts. I have to say, it was rather spectacular. Particular highlights include The Burrow, magically cleaning itself and doing its own ironing, vegetable chopping and folding, and of course, Diagon Alley, the immersive pleasure of passing by Flourish and Blotts unsure of what brand of quills to purchase, dreaming of owning the Firebolt and using it to ascend to new heights of quidditch mastery, or mulling over spending your last few galleons on a packet of puking pastilles from Fred and George’s joke shop.
Alas, that is one of this venue’s shortcomings, that all of the magic creates a skin deep illusion that cannot really be interacted with beyond a visual, sometimes tactile level. It was the deal breaker for the missus, who wondered, ‘why couldn’t you actually go into any of the shops in Diagon Alley?’ That was a bit disappointing.’
To which my response was, ‘You want Florida. That’s the Harry Potter Experience where you can actually be a part of the whole thing.’
‘Oh. It’s finally happened hasn’t it? I’m just an American in search of a theme park, aren’t I?’
I sympathize utterly though. It probably could have been a more interactive experience, as though the world of Harry Potter was living and breathing before you on a loop that allowed you to enter and take part at any point. My fellow expat blogger, Sunny In London, has written a useful comparison of the Watford Harry Potter Experience and the one in her native Florida. Enjoyable though Watford was, what I’ve read does make me want to check out the Floridian Islands of Adventure that include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
And as we’re speaking of shortcomings, if you do journey to Watford (which, again, is completely worth it so long as you know what to expect), bring your own food. The comestibles available on the backlot between the two halves of the tour were dire. Dry egg and ham sandwiches or hot dogs moistened with cold saccharine butter beer (all the internet recipes we’ve ever used involve warming the Hogsmeade bevvy in the microwave to help the butterscotch and the cream soda froth up and marry and it’s damn comforting on a cold and windy Halloween night in) were the orders of the day. There was a cafe at the front that didn’t look much more edible and it goes without saying, food prices were ludicrous. We were under what now seems to have been a misconception that BYO was prohibited. I saw people unwrapping pack lunches and digging in and no one was telling them off. It seemed a pretty poor tribute to a series of books so replete with such vivid descriptions of food that can wreak a frankly Pavlovian effect on the most detached of readers.
One of the great bonuses of having a former employee of the movie franchise with us was that we were let in on the secret that in the wand room at the end of the tour, every wand box has a name of anyone who has worked on any of the films. And though it was like sifting through a mythical haystack for a magical needle, I’m quite proud to say that, in among all the writer’s and actor’s names, I found our friend Vikki’s wand box at which there was much rejoicing. I knew there was a use for my ability to sift through unconnnected symbols and make sense out of verbal chaos somewhere in the universe.
I would heartily recommend the experience, though pick your times. Traffic was nonexistent first thing on a Sunday. It might well be a different story in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Aside from your pack lunches, you need only bring your imagination and your love of the magic of stories. Now, off to put in some more hours studying occlumency. And then an essay on blast-ended screwts for Monday. Cor Blimey!