Friday, 30 March 2012

Harry Potter Studio Tour

I've reviewed the Harry Potter studio tour for The Daily Telegraph. It was relatively severely cut, so I'm pasting the original below.

The Harry Potter studio tour nestles behind houses that look like those in Privet Drive (the street where Potter is practically imprisoned by his repressive family, the Dursleys). The most interesting thing about the tour is not that everything from the films is present, correct, and beautifully rendered – which it is. It’s not that the entrance hall is antiseptic, with an unprepossessing café and a temple to merchandise (where it wasn’t the prices that galled me so much as the baseball caps. Really?). Incidentally, you can also buy butterbeer - and I don't know what they put in it, but it had me babbling uncontrollably for at least half an hour.

Whilst you are prepared to accept that you are actually walking down the skewed Dickensian charm of Diagon Alley, where shop fronts spill over with intriguing magical goods, you’re also constantly made aware that you’re on a studio lot. There are barriers –  the clinical sort that you get in amusement parks, not velvet ropes. There are too many excitable people bursting to tell you exactly how the sets were constructed. I watched a little boy cornered by one, who told him that the books in Professor Dumbledore’s study are actually bound telephone directories. “No they’re not! They’re magic books!” I almost said. It struck me that explanations could have been left until the end, for those who wanted them.

But more importantly, the proximity of those all-but-pebble-dashed houses highlighted that everything in Harry Potter is an extension of something in our, real world. You would have thought that when, in one of the most magical moments in children’s literature, Harry Potter receives a letter telling him that he is a wizard, he would enter into a world that is entirely different and new.

The most interesting thing about the tour is that it isn’t, and he doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong. Fans of the films (which I count myself among) will thrill to the sight of the entrance to Hogwarts as it suddenly appears behind a screen. The Great Hall is awe-inspiring, with everything, down to the boars-headed jugs, lovingly crafted. It achieves the thrill of wonder – and recognition – that the films, at their best, create. The rest of the sets are exquisite, with a precise attention to detail that is a joy to encounter. My heart thrummed with excitement at seeing copies of The Quibbler, hand-make magic books, boxes of wands, the Knight Bus, Buckbeak the hippogriff – at everything. I was both moved and enchanted.

This, however, is not a different world. Harry Potter’s universe, in both magical and non-magical parts, is a cartoon place that draws its strengths from the way that it apes us. The sets on this tour are all real places taken to their logical conclusion. The Gryffindor dormitory, where Harry and his chums spend most of their lives, is the ideal version of a dormitory: four poster beds, a large stove (on which, charmingly, a pair of socks has been left to dry), trunks and a Manchester United duvet. 4 Privet Drive is the ür-Privet Drive. The gamekeeper Hagrid’s hut is entirely folksy; Dolores Umbridge’s study is an exaggeration of a lady’s boudoir; the Gryffindor common room is the quintessence of manor house comfort. The wizards’ world, made flesh by the films, is ours: distorted, yes; but ours all the same.

The wizards are meant to have little or no knowledge of our non-wizard world – and yet they use some everyday objects and don’t understand others. One can’t help thinking that if wizards were really wizards, why would they need all this paraphernalia? Because in Rowling’s world, wizards are not really wizards. (“What?” I hear you splutter.) There is none of the terrible self-examination of Ursula Le Guin’s Ged, in The Wizard of Earthsea, for example. What they can do with “magic” is arbitrary, with little logic or consequence.

The Harry Potter stories distil these ideal forms into a powerful tale of good and evil, accessible because of its derivative nature. But there is nothing challenging, or truly uncanny here. The dark wizard will always be defeated, because his power is ultimately meaningless. That’s what the studio tour brings home: it’s extremely enjoyable, but as passing as the oversugared taste of butterbeer.

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