On location: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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Modern cinema’s greatest phenomenon is soon to reach its thrilling climax with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Given unprecedented access to the new movies, Film Critic Tony Earnshaw reports exclusively from the set and speaks to star Daniel Radcliffe.

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On a cold and dismal January morn I trudge through a slushy car park to enter labyrinthine Leavesden Studios, 18 miles north-west of London and home for the last ten years to the mighty Harry Potter franchise.

Within it’s barely warmer than the freezing winter’s day outside. Hot breath hangs in the air like a Sherlockian pea-souper. The former Rolls-Royce factory is both awesome in its cavernous concrete majesty and deceptively awash with settings familiar to Potter aficionados.

Inside a marquee bedecked with production images from the films – the 784-page final novel has bifurcated into two epic movies – stand glass cases packed with props and memorabilia.

I am proffered hot coffee and biscuits. A welcome heater blasts out hot air. It’s a pleasant little oasis of warmth and comfort. Suddenly in strolls a bloodied and bedraggled Daniel Radcliffe. It’s barely ten o’clock in the morning and our hero looks like he’s just been slung through a saloon bar window.

Bloodied but unbowed: Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Bloodied but unbowed: Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

But if Radcliffe has had it tough, he shrugs it off. Smiling easily and talking quickly, he adopts the machine-gun patter of someone who’s just downed a gallon of caffeine.

“These are a variety wounds from various things that happen to me in the battle,” says a grinning Radcliffe by way of explanation. “I’m not sure specifically where I become a bloodier and bloodier mess. Yesterday I was falling downstairs loads and loads and loads, which was good fun.

“The action in this film is going to be extraordinary. The seven Harrys sequence in the film is going to be pretty fantastic. Normally where you see split-screen there’s one person talking to himself and it’s very obvious he’s six yards away having a conversation. In this scene arms are overlapping and everyone’s crossing over each other.

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The death of a Weasley.

“We did 96 takes in total on this one shot. By the end of it we were ready to open a vein. At the end of the day we saw a very primitive cut-together version of what we’d done and it made it all worthwhile – ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s what we’ve spent the last six hours doing’. Because it looked brilliant. That will be the first really cool bit of magic in the film.”

As we speak Radcliffe is about to continue filming a key sequence within Hogwarts’ shattered Great Hall in which a central character has been killed by the forces of Lord Voldemort, played by Ralph Fiennes. Returning to familiar ground will please the fans since for more much of the plot the heroic triumvirate is loose in the wilds.

“Up until right at the end we’re not in Hogwarts at all. It makes a huge difference,” he muses. “I was watching the sixth film and I was suddenly aware of how different this one’s going to be – not only because we’re not wearing any of the robes or any of that stuff but because we’re not in Hogwarts. People are used to these stories happening within the geography of a certain place. It gives the film a totally different feel.”

As a production HQ, Leavesden is unique. It has hosted the Harry Potter films for a little over a decade, providing stability and continuity in a business notorious for its nomadic traditions. Radcliffe, now 21, has been a part of that since 2000. This is filmmaking on an industrial scale. It’s too glib and simplistic to describe it as a family atmosphere, yet that’s precisely how Radcliffe relates to it.

An aerial view of Leavesden Studios.

An aerial view of Leavesden Studios.

“I come in here every day and I’ve got to know the crew really well,” he says with genuine fondness. “ The likelihood is that I will work with almost all of them again on other jobs but I will miss being able to walk onto a film set and know exactly who everyone is, where I stand with them, what to talk about…”

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Dumbledore’s office.

Radcliffe goes off to earn his living and the grand tour begins. I am struck by the familiarity of the standing sets. Dumbledore’s office has been inherited by Professor Snape, who has tidied up. Previously very shambolic with parchments lying around and star-gazing equipment in the background, the space is now more regimented and severe.

The living portraits on the wall stare out benignly. Some contain no faces, just green backdrops – ready for special effects to be incorporated at a later stage. Designed by Stuart Craig, it’s as much a part of the Potter legend as any of the characters. It’s imaginatively done: the globe within Dumbledore’s giant telescope was cannibalised from a B-52 bomber. Considered the most expensive prop on the film, it has only once been seen in detail. The ornate volumes lining the book shelves are revealed as chunky Yellow Pages, cleverly disguised and lettered with beautiful calligraphy.

As the actors take a break – I witness Dame Maggie Smith patiently queuing for a plastic cup of tea alongside Davids Thewlis and Bradley – the tour takes in the war-torn Great Hall. Constructed from a metal frame with wooden flats covered with plaster – the floor is real York stone – it is probably the longest standing set in UK film history. Today it is strewn with debris, which is made on site from polystyrene, glue and sand. I am allowed to touch nothing. “Even a bit of rubble is continuity,” says my eagle-eyed guide.

Filming the battle in the Great Hall.

Filming the battle in the Great Hall.

A short distance from the Great Hall stands the set of the Atrium, where Harry, Ron and Hermione disguise themselves to go into the Ministry of Magic to retrieve a vital locket. Close by stand three separate elements of Malfoy Manor, a new setting never previously seen in the films. Cold and sinister, it provides the launch pad for part one of Deathly Hallows as first Charity Burbidge is murdered by Voldemort and then Hermione Granger is tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange.

It’s a dark and dread moment and underlines the grim, paranoid nature of both Harry Potter and the world around him. Radcliffe agrees.

“Harry’s like a Roman emperor in his last days when all his court is turning on him. He is just becoming completely paranoid about what Ron and Hermione are saying about him behind his back. They’re doubting his leadership. Which is true.

“All the time that people are doubting Harry’s leadership, he himself has no idea what he’s doing. He has no plan. He is kind of pretty useless but he’s getting through with sheer bloody-mindedness.”

It’s been a busy day but it’s not over for Radcliffe, who prepares to re-join Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and the rest of the multitudinous cast. As he leaves he ruminates on ten incredible years as Hogwarts’ wizarding hero.

“It’s very, very cool to be able to play a hero. I may not have that again for however long so [I have to] really enjoy it while I’ve got the chance,” he says with a tinge of sadness.

“I have seen Jo [Rowling] and said ‘You’re not writing any more, are you?’ and she said ‘No’. I’m sure there’ll be times when I’m going ‘I’m glad to be… not rid of it but glad to be doing something else now.’ If I don’t make that transition successfully I’ll probably be begging her to write one.

“If there was ever another version – the prequel or the next series [based on Harry’s] kids – it would have to be brilliant for me to want to get involved. And it would have to be a working with a director who knew the territory. I’m not looking to do any more Potter stuff; I’ve done it now.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (12A) is on saturation release from November 19.

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This article originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post.

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