The RTÉ Guide's Janice Butler was lucky enough to be invited to the set of Harry Potter last January. Here she recalls that visit.
Short of being transported into a scene from Cinderella, there’s nothing more magical than arriving on the set of Harry Potter – suddenly you’re five again and everything seems full of intrigue and wonder. Leavesden Studios, near Watford, has been home to the magic for the past ten years, and as we arrive at an unassuming white gate on a snowy day in January, a sense of finality is in the frosty air as the cast and crew film the final scenes of the final instalment of epic Harry Potter franchise.
After we’re read a list of house rules, we take a small step into a nondescript warehouse but a giant leap into the heart of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The first thing you notice is a rack of bicycles adorned with cast and crew names like license plates. We soon learn that they have a very practical use, given the vast size of the former Rolls Royce factory. We’re ushered into a small marquee with some very welcome blow heaters and hot tea and coffee. The walls are plastered with storyboards, set images, glass cabinets with costumes and props and mini-sets, relics of already filmed scenes of Deathly Hallows. There’s just time to savour the atmosphere – with more than a little wide-eyed enthusiasm – as we wait the stars’ arrival.
As Daniel, Emma and Rupert come bundling in, each made up with an impressive array of fake cuts and bruises from a gruelling action scene, they are appreciative of the warm environment. Although they have spent so much of their lives in the spotlight, the three stars are refreshingly unaffected by the whirlwind that surrounds them – they are polite, courteous and a real credit to the family environment that has been created inside this metal warehouse.
Later, as they leave the room, one of their minders fondly recalls when they were first unveiled to the world as the stars of Harry Potter – “we tried to make it as light as possible for them at the time, before we went on stage they were playing board games and reading books. You can’t say to ten and 11-year-olds that this is the world press and millions of people are going to be watching it – they were so young.”
After the actors go back to set, we get stuck into the grand tour. Everywhere we go, there’s a familiar Harry Potter sight to absorb. En route to the Great Hall, we pass giant serpent heads from Chamber of Secrets and chess pieces from Philosopher’s Stone. At one of the many prop stores dotted around the complex, there’s the giant and creepily life-like spider Aragog and in the creature shop there are models galore used in the production of all movies.
The Great Hall lives up to its name – made from real stone and rocks, it has been a permanent structure with its own stage since 2000, but during our visit it’s in a sad state of destruction. The cast are filming an emotional scene from the second instalment and as we take our seats on the periphery, headphones are handed out so we can eavesdrop. Dressed in a pink hoodie and jeans, Emma Watson transforms into Hermione Granger in front of our eyes, with a little guidance from director David Yates. The scene in question lasts no more than a minute but is shot several times. The cast warms up in blankets between takes and the main topic of conversation seems to be the lunch menu! “I hope the soup is either carrot or coriander”, remarks Emma to co-star Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley). “I hope there’s a curry”, answers Bonnie. A glimmer of reality and normality in a magical world.
When the cast eventually break for well-deserved food, they form an orderly queue in the main canteen. Chips, burgers, and salads are the order of the day. Trays in their hands, the actors form cliques at the tables, just like they are at school. All of the Weasley family stick together, a group of unrecognizable wizards and goblins huddle together like penguins and Emma Watson digs into a very healthy salad (passing on the soup, it seems) – all that’s missing is the fabulous Alan Rickman, who possibly lunches in his own secret quarters.
Refuelled and ready to face the elements, our tour continues outside to Privet Drive. Number 4 stands proudly, the home of the dastardly duo, Vernon and Petunia Dursley, Harry’s uncle and aunt. We take in some other familiar landmarks – Dumbledore’s office stands out with its exquisite detail. Each book on his library wall seems like a perfectly bound magic tome, but underneath there are hundred of copies of the Golden Pages!
Our brilliant day finally comes to an end, and we’re shown our way out through that unassuming white gate. As it closes behind us, the voices that have brought these buildings to life can still be heard: the screams of Moaning Myrtle, the wise words of Dumbledore, the tweets of Hedwig, the laughter from the Great Hall. From the imagination and skills of the creator, cast, crew and fans, their memories, the legend that is Harry Potter will live on forever.