Friday 27th May 2016
I spent eight hours spying on the perfectly ordinary world of the Dursleys at Warner Bros. Studio London.
Like Professor McGonagall before me, I waited outside number four, Privet Drive all day to see if the rumours were true.
If they had existed, the inhabitants of the neighbouring houses would have been twitching their net curtains as the red carpets rolled out and the stars twinkled over the house in Little Whinging where Harry Potter spent 11 years and six summers.
For years, we’ve only been able to admire the neat lawn and well-kept exterior of Petunia, Vernon and Dudley’s suburban castle. But to celebrate this year’s fifteenth anniversary of the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the door of number four was opened at last.
The rain had been coming down in icy ribbons on the day I stepped into Harry’s childhood home for the very first time, although nothing could have dampened the occasion. Particularly as Fiona Shaw, the brilliant actress who played Petunia Dursley, was on hand to open her ‘home’ to us.
Wearing Mrs Dursley-ish pearls, Fiona cut the bright red ribbon and beckoned us in. But just as we were about to step over the threshold she shut the door in our faces, and tried to shoo us away in Aunt Petunia’s clipped Surrey accent. ‘Who are you?! Horrible children!’
We can’t guarantee that Fiona will be there each day to joke about having ‘a nice place under the stairs for you’, although we really wish she could be. Number four, Privet Drive opens to the public today, until 6 June. You’ll now be able to peep in at the Dursleys’ living room and marvel at the flurry of Hogwarts letters Uncle Vernon tried so desperately to avoid.
Once inside, it struck me how much this house represented the antithesis of the wizarding world. The small hallway decorated with pot plants, the china telephone ornament and hideous wallpaper. On the walls hung certificates congratulating Dudley on swimming five metres and successfully being a lunch monitor.
There’s even the door to Harry’s cupboard under the stairs, which he shared for so many years with a mixture of household detritus and spiders.
The lounge was everything I remembered: an explosion of beige and salmon pink; the wallpaper a sickly hue that Dolores Umbridge would probably be keen on; the sofa resplendent in patterned velvet, overladen with plump cushions and offset by a matching lamp.
‘Mrs Dursley made the best of what she was in her house,’ Fiona Shaw told me. ‘But she wished that this house was five times the size it was; wished that she was five times more glamorous than she was, and possibly five times wealthier than she was.’
‘The whole thing is about envy: she envied her sister. I think you can replace magic with imagination. You’re either an imaginative person or you want to be. Mrs Dursley is what she is.’
These touches – the chintz, the doilies, the trophy made of drill bits from Mr Dursley’s workplace, Grunnings – beautfully illustrated Mrs Dursley’s fierce domestic pride. Set decorator Rosie Goodwin told me that bringing the the Dursleys’ home to life was easy because it was described so clearly in the stories.
‘We knew they were quite unkind people,’ she says. ‘We knew they were emotionally closed and that they didn’t take risks. So we sourced everything from mainstream department stores. It’s quite a faithful representation of one style of 1990s furnishings.’
Except, that suspended from the ceiling of the Dursley’s living room are thousands of the original letters from Philosopher’s Stone inviting Harry to attend Hogwarts.
John Richardson, the special effects supervisor on all the Potter films, was also there to see the door of number four open and unveiled a reproduction of the machine he made 15 years ago to shoot thousands of those green-inked letters through the door.
The scene where the Dursleys cowered as thousands of letters zoomed into the house, leaving them half-buried in paper and green ink, could not have happened without John.
‘Everyone talked about using CGI for the letters originally,’ John tells me. ‘But I told them “No, we can do it mechanically”. Which looked much better. Of course, once we’d fired 2,000 letters across the room we had to pick them all up. Which made it a little laborious to get to take two.’
If you make your way to Warner Bros. Studio Tour while the door of number four is unlocked you might even be able to take one of those replica letters home with you, if you’re quick enough.
The letters addressed to Mr H Potter, The Cupboard Under the Stairs, were produced by hand for the films by graphic designers Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, otherwise known as MinaLima.
‘It was the first prop I ever did for Harry Potter,’ Miraphora explains. ‘I think I was a bit naive about what was coming.’ The pair went on to design every prop with a graphic application in all the films: this includes Dudley’s certificates, The Daily Prophet, textbook jackets, The Quibbler and all the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes products.
Back in number four Privet Drive a snake of people longer than Nagini had wound its way through the drab hallway, past the lounge and out into a tangle of scaffolding that held the fibreglass shell of the set up.
Out through the back, through the garden gate and into the fresh air someone near me told her friend: ‘It’s just so ordinary, I love it.’ Another visitor squealed: ‘This makes me want to be in the books. Oh I wish I was in the books.’
So is number four, Privet Drive perfectly ordinary? Oh yes, but it’s thrilling to see up close.