Friday, May 04, 2012

Harry Potter experience, particle accelerators, disasters, an Olympic gold medalist, mugshots and the Foreign Secretary

Charlotte gets ready for her experience

It's been an odd sort of fortnight, not least because I am sick of being regularly doused in rainwater and feeling as soggy as a two hour old bag of chips most of the time.  It started last Monday with two very contrasting events I had to take my daughter to.

The sets and props are the real thing not reproductions

My daughter is, indeed, a strange girl (I can't think where she gets it from) but on Monday she had her perfect day.  I had heard about the new Warner Bros Harry Potter experience before Christmas and I booked Charlotte a ticket back then.  Fortunately, she didn't hear about it in the interim and so the tickets on Christmas Day were a complete surprise.  She came to Harry Potter quite late but now, in her scientific way, seems to know everything about it.  

Charlotte in front of the Chamber of Secrets

Given I had to accompany her (my wife has no time for any sort of fiction which she dismisses as "made up stories" -actually maybe that's where the strange comes from) I had to take a crash course in the films (I had seen half of the first one on a flight to Los Angeles) and watched all eight over Christmas in about six days.  The most bizarre aspect, of course, was watching the child actors mature over such a short space of time   (especially Emma Watson) and at different rates.  I can't think of another theatrical production that did this except, perhaps, The Waltons TV show.

Diagon Alley

Anyway,  we arrived for our allotted slot (you can't just turn up) and I have to say I was hugely impressed by the whole operation.  They had filled two sound stages at Leavesden Studios with sets, props and costumes from the eight films.  I have been to a couple of these sorts of things before: a Lord of the Rings props exhibition in London and a Star Trek one at the Las Vegas Hilton but this one was on a completely different scale.

Everything was brilliantly organised and the staff were genuinely friendly and helpful.  I'm interested in behind the scenes stuff in films (maybe it's because I grew up within sight of Shepperton Studios (or at least it's backlot) and worked there for a bit) but the thing that impressed me most about this was the level of detail and craftsmanship on every single prop.  The Star Trek props and models were very disappointing; phasers carved out of wood, spaceships with pencil panel lines drawn on them.  For Harry Potter, however, nothing was bodged.  If there was a trophy visible in a cabinet for just a few seconds it wasn't plain - it had a proper inscription on it (we saw one inscribed for the winner of the gnome racing competition).  

The sets were amazing and they had the Great Hall of Hogwarts complete with real York stone paving.  Even though the walls weren't real stone you could stand six inches away and not tell.  You go in to the exhibition in batches and start with a short film introduction which led to a coup de theatre that literally left the audience gasping.  We had been in Christ Church College, Oxford hall a few months previously (they had used the stairs at Christ Church as the entrance to Hogwarts Hall in the first film) and there was a certain resemblance.

Charlotte outside 4 Privet Drive

After this they took you through different aspects of the film's production, make-up, wigs, costume, creatures, props, special effects, all interspersed with some of the sets from the films.  Eventually you end up outside (it was tipping down with rain, naturally) to see some external sets and props.

The Night Bus

You finish with the large model of Hogwarts, the effect of which was similar to the first time I saw the Swedish ship Vasa.  The British Ambassador told me that if I had a free afternoon in Stockholm I should go and see it as it has the "wow!" factor.  I soon realised what he meant because as soon as I went into the museum I went "wow!"  The 1/24 scale model Hogwarts has the same effect!  It's amazing!

One of the girls working there said that they were taking through 6,000 visitors a day which I reckon meant that the takings were about £250,000 a day.  Add to that the amount they were taking for greenscreen photos, in the shop and cafe and I think, even given the £10million cost of the attraction, Warner Bros will be minting it for some time to come.

Dumbledore's study

One strange thing about the Harry Potter exhibition was that there weren't that many children there.  OK, most of the schools had gone back (not Charlotte's) but the biggest group of visitors seemed to be young women in their twenties.  I suppose they started reading the books when they were eleven or twelve and have grown up with them and the films.

Dr Suzie.  She can accelerate my particles any day

After a, fortunately, brief stop in the huge shop  we had to race to Oxford so Charlotte could attend a lecture at the Physics faculty on recent developments in particle accelerators.  If there is anything she enjoys more than Harry Potter it's particle physics.  I prepared to sleep through the whole thing until  I saw the lecturer, the really rather gorgeous Dr Suzie.  I learned a lot and have been boring people with the possibilities of particle accelerator-driven, Thorium-powered nuclear fission ever since.

She can accelerate my particles too

I was quite excited this week as I was booked to give an interview to  a research firm in Washington DC and they paid me £300 for speaking to them on the phone about infrastructure for half an hour.  On Tuesday, however, it all went wrong.   The car broke down (split hose) and had to go into the garage overnight so I had to trudge to the station in the rain and mud.  When the car came back from the garage it had a huge crack in the windscreen which we know wasn't there when it went in.  The garage deny doing it but have offered to pay half the cost.  Then the TV aerial packed up and we had no TV for three days until aerial Scouser could fix it.  Then the tap in the kitchen came detached from the sink and a big bolt dropped out into the cupboard below.  Next the drains got blocked and draino man said it would cost £700 to deal with the roots growing through them. Then the boiler packed up (again) and we had no heating or hot water for 36 hours.  Finally, I cracked a tooth which then got infected so I have been having to anaesthetise it every night with freezing Sauvignon Blanc.  I could very much do with Hermione Grainger to wave her wand and say "dentus repairum!"  As it is I will have to spend several hundred pounds at the dentist.   So the £300 has been more than used up.  Grr! 

I consoled myself with a long lunch with my favourite German, B, who was over from Turkey, fortunately.  We discovered a fantastic Anjou Blanc in the tapas bar from the Ackermann cellars in St Hilaire-St Florent. I had been to these cellars during my holiday in the Loire thirty years ago with the lovely V (my then girlfriend) and J (my previous girlfriend) so it contributed to the nostalgic mood I drifted into as the afternoon (and the bottles) progressed.

Tessa Sanderson: Doesn't look 56!

Later in the week I was at an event with some of our Olympians and gold medal javelin thrower, Tessa Sanderson, who was a very nice lady.  She is four years older than me but, to paraphrase Gandalf, "she hadn't aged a day!"  I think it's the first time I had seen a real Olympic gold medal up close and it has got me excited about the Olympics this summer.  My sister managed to get us tickets for the men's 1500m final so that should be quite good.  I've got the first day of the athletics, some rowing, fencing and, of course the cycling comes past the end of my road.

The modest staircase and hall at Lancaster House

This week all the British Ambassadors were over in London for a big conference so there were endless receptions to attend.  I have literally lived on canapes for four days.  Best reception was for the Latin American-based ambassadors sponsored by drinks giant Diageo, who were supplying endless glasses of Champagne and cocktails.  Poshest was at Lancaster House, the FCO's hospitality and conference building next to St James Palace.  I caught up with William Hague again at that one.  He was President of the Oxford Union when I was art director of the Oxford Union Magazine.

Finally, in a bizarre finish to a strange couple of weeks I was trying to find  an old friend using Google.  I used to work with this lady at a previous job and we kept in touch and met up for lunch regularly until she returned to live in the US.  She had an unusual Arab name so I hoped I would be able to track her down easily.  I certainly did, but didn't expect to locate her through, not one but two, mugshots of her on US police websites, as she had been arrested twice on disorder and resisting arrest charges.  When I knew her in London this lady was cultured, civilised, well dressed and beautiful.  She had been educated at a top Ivy League University.  What happened?  You just can't tell!

I have managed a bit of painting, mainly undercoating stuff but also a bit on my first American Civil War figures.  They are taking as long as I thought they would, especially as I have decided to start with some barely uniformed Virginians from 1861 based on this Don Troiani painting of Bull Run.  Another week and I might have finished six!


  1. My physics teacher was an old soak who liked giving boys the cane. I now realise I have spent my life in your alternative universe where particles dont get very excited, beautiful girls are replaced by hairy old buggers BUT real ale flows like wine!

  2. I'd pay good money to visit Matt's "experience"... :o))

  3. Not a huge fan of HP here though I am familiar with the movies as the kids love them and those sets look great. WB is clearly onto a winner with the idea of putting movie stuff on show. I look forward to their efforts after the Hobbit is done :-)

    Funny you reminded me of something my old physics teacher did once, whilst discussing the properties of materials - and discussing plastics... and the kids plastic rulers caught his eye - he picked up one rigid plastic ruler and stated if he were to bend this it break into many pieces,... but this (as he picked up another) is one the new shatterproof plastics... and with that he gave it a good bend and it shattered into several pieces up into the air... the class was in uproar afterwards, our laughing was heard in all the adjacent classrooms ... ;-)

  4. That's funny!

    Physics teachers! Grrr!

    Mine at school was the son of a famous author and was very smug with it. Even more annoyingly he then went on to co-operate with his father on his novels and no doubt made a load of money!