I am behind again this week and writing my blog on a Tuesday instead of a Sunday, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me as I’ve had other things on my mind … As a European and internationalist, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was somewhat disappointed with the results of the UK referendum last week. Part of the reason for not writing this until today was a need to take stock (and not to be tempted into any kind of crazy public rant …). In fact, I’m not going to write about it at all. There are better-placed and cleverer people than me to do that, like Rick Hebditch, External Affairs Director at NTEWNI and re-quote Leo Tolstoy “Never mind, sir – things will shape themselves”.
On Friday evening, we went to the opera (well, to be honest it was Oliver! but part of an opera festival) at our next door English Heritage mansion, called the Grange. I’ve mentioned it before as an inspiration to me from childhood and what could have been more lovely than taking our two children (aged 7 and 9) to their first ‘opera’ on a sunny summer’s evening?
All dressed up to the nines (we normally only get tickets to the dress rehearsals but the Grange Park Opera very kindly let us have tickets to an ‘actual’ performance which was very exciting), we enjoyed a short aperitif with our new friend Matthew (the cousin of INTO friend and acolyte Ian Kennaway) who is in the cast of a couple of the other operas and who kindly took our photo! Then into the lovely theatre (the former orangery and picture gallery) for a completely delicious romp! The children were mesmerised and so was I. The cast was amazing. The singing children were absolutely captivating – it was actually impossible to take your eyes off the Artful Dodger! One of Monty’s friends was an orphan so we were glued to him too. Our children particularly enjoyed it when the cast sang from the auditorium: ‘Who will buy my sweet red roses?’, etc. It didn’t quite dispel the misery of the day’s news but it was supremely uplifting and enjoyable. I also hope it will have begun to instill in the children a love of theatre and music, and will prove as inspirational as my visits there at a similar age.
On Monday the children had the day of school for a teacher training day and I had booked us all (ages ago) tickets for the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studios. In our line of business, the Making of Harry Potter is extolled for running at near capacity, having the highest secondary spend (by a mile) of any visitor attraction in the country and for receiving 97% excellent or very good TripAdvisor reviews. What, if anything, could INTO members learn from Hogwarts?
For me, it was all about emotional connection. The ‘move’ bit of ‘teach, move, inspire’. Frankly, they had me in the queue to get in where there is a big quote on the wall from JK Rowling which says simply: ‘No story lives unless someone wants to listen’.
What could be better advice for a heritage attraction???
Being a school day and not quite the holidays in the rest of the world either, the crowd was quite an adult one, although there were a few school groups knocking around, which shows the intergenerational appeal of the Harry Potter stories and films.
Something my partner Ben said at the end really struck me too. He was pleased that it had been ‘old fashioned’. That people were really just coming to see all the stuff they’d seen in the films. They weren’t interacting in some kind of clever techy way (although there were opportunities to be filmed flying on broomsticks or travelling on the Hogwarts Express but these were ‘extras’ rather than the core experience). You could have had a tour – either digital self guide or some groups were going around with a live guide using a clever headset system – but there was so much information available anyway that we didn’t regret not having one. Something about the real thing in an age of virtual reality? (If that’s not disingenuous considering it is a film studio???)
We were all intrigued to see how the Quidditch matches were filmed (Daniel Radcliffe did warn us at the beginning that the spell might be broken!) but it was also interesting to learn about the location sets (NTEWNI’s Lacock Abbey was used for the Defence Against the Dark Arts and Potions classrooms in the first film before a set was built, for example); that some scenes were planned with real candles or real glass memory balls before Directors decided to add them in digitally afterwards; or indeed the opposite – that the intricate locks at Gringotts and the Chamber of Secrets were completely real, working mechanical devices.
Telling the stories of the people involved, demonstrating how things were made and just generally awe-inspiring exhibits are all things that National Trusts can recreate at their properties. We might not want or need 5,000 visitors a day (!) but we could learn from their approach: The staff in their cream chinos and blue and white striped shirts were smart, welcoming and well rehearsed. The toilets were clean and queue-less. The café looked nice (we had brought a picnic so only indulged in an obligatory butterbeer!). And the shop was … a Harry Potter fan’s idea of heaven; a parent’s nightmare, although I had prepared myself so wasn’t surprised to see that the average pricing was well over the NTEWNI’s under £10 mark.
It was a great day out. It was moving. It was inspirational. It was a very slick operation. And for me, the beginning and the end of the Tour (don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t been) were absolutely magical. That’s definitely something we can learn from.
Thanks for reading!