As unlikely as it might seems, Watford now boasts a world class visitor attraction - the Harry Potter Studio Tour, On Saturday Warner Brothers opened up part of their Leavesden studios in tribute to JK Rowling's boy wizard, and in the hope of making a shedload of money. They hope that families (and international tourists) will be tempted out of the capital to look round all the old film sets, as used by Daniel Radcliffe and friends for the best part of ten years. You must have seen the poster adverts plastered around town, they're everywhere, paid for out of a bottomless marketing budget. You won't have been yet, obviously. But I nearly have, if you're interested.
Most families will drive to get to Leavesden, obviously, because the M1 and M25 are only a very short distance away. But if you come by train via Watford Junction, a slightly special bus service has been laid on. Alas it's not the purple triple-decker which awaits in the bus station (that particular prop's at the studios), but a specially-dolled up black double-decker with scenes from Diagon Alley emblazoned across the outside [photo]. It's damned good value too, a mere £2 return up to Leavesden and back, even if it's fairly pointless taking a ride aboard if you haven't already shelled out the £28 for admission at the other end.
The bus gets querulous stares from the population of Watford as it passes, or maybe that's just a first weekend thing. It was all very exciting on board too, at least for a pair of Japanese tourists snapping away at the streets of North Watford as we sailed by. Proper terraces at first (they became quite animated on spotting "Shakespeare Road"), then outer suburban more reminiscent of Privet Drive. Only after humping across the A41 do the studios come into view - a long row of sheds across what used to be Leavesden Aerodrome. They've dressed them up very slightly by plastering five stills from the films across the front, but otherwise you could well believe Rolls Royce were still building aircraft engines inside.
The new road off the roundabout has been called "Studio Tour Drive", and is marked by an especially lame street sign pushed apologetically into a fresh flowerbed. Through the gate, past security, the bus pulls up on the edge of the car park pretty much outside the main entrance. I suspect there won't normally be four black buses parked up in a line, that was probably a special for the world's press who were swarming all over [photo]. They also made rather a nice backdrop for the Japanese folk to take more photos ("ha, this is me outside Ollivanders"), before wandering off in the general direction of the entrance doors.
But no ticket, no further progress. Especially not when the paying public are queueing along the red carpet for the official opening, blessed by whichever bunch of minor HP actors the management could persuade to attend [photo]. News crews and internet entertainment outlets swanned around, filming (and re-filming) snippets to camera ready for chopping up and editing later. And security kept their eyes on proceedings, wandering across the empty car park and milling around by the main entrance [photo]. Nothing to do but take the black bus back to Watford Junction, this time with a recorded "thank you for coming" message from Warwick Davis (seriously? WarwickDavis?) and a blaring showreel of Warner Brothers' upcoming releases.
So anyway, the message is, if you haven't bought a ticket in advance there really is no point in turning up to enjoy the cafe and the gift shop and the backlot, because there's nothing to see here but two big sheds. If you'd like to buy a ticket, be aware that the Easter holidays are fully booked and the next available timeslot is on Tuesday 24th April. And if you're playing the long game, Warner Brothers have hinted that their studio tour won't stay Potter-themed forever, and that the Dark Knight or Sherlock Holmes might get a look-in on site eventually. On the outskirts of Watford. Who'd ever have thought.
Ten Harry Potter Studio Tour bits and pieces » All the film stages at Leavesden are lettered. The Harry Potter Tour is housed in Stages J and K, which is extremely appropriate. » Mosquitos and Halifax Bombers were manufactured here during World War II, back when this was de Havilland Engine Company Limited. » Warner Brothers recommend three hours inside from start to finish, although it's a self-guided tour so you might walk it rather quicker. » It's £21 for a child's ticket, if you were wondering. You could buy half the Harry Potter novels for less than that. » The bus to the studio is officially route 311, as a nod to the service that used to run out to Leavesden when it was still an aircraft factory. » All the bus drivers on the special Watford Junction service were invited to tour the attraction last week. "The attention to detail is amazing," so I'm told. » In the first film, Privet Drive was a cul-de-sac in Bracknell. For subsequent films, they recreated ten houses from the street on the backlot. » Watford's no Orlando, so there are no rides. » The Studio Tour isn't actually in Watford, it's a few hundred metres over the border into Three Rivers, although everyone keeps quiet about that. » If £28 isn't enough, you can pay £55 for a combined entrance ticket plus coach travel from Victoria. For heaven's sake take the train and bus, it's much cheaper and much quicker. Or stay at home and read a good book.