When I was sixteen, I did a week’s work experience on the set of the Harry Potter films. They were filming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts I and II, and I was in the costume department. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.
I signed a nondisclosure agreement and was taken inside. A member of the film crew generously gave me a tour of the most impressive sets. As everyone knows if they’ve gone on the Harry Potter Experience, the studios are on a former airfield near Watford, and the place is huge. The central hangar was vast, filled with portakabins and extensions and offices and film-sets. And the hangar was only part of the sprawling Harry Potter complex. Hundreds and hundreds of people worked there. Nobody took much notice of an overawed teenage boy.
I only had one interaction with Daniel Radcliffe. Some guys were smoking together, and I asked them for directions to the nearest loo. Daniel Radcliffe was one of the smokers. He left his mates, pointed out the way, and seemed anxious to make sure I didn’t get lost. He was so friendly it was almost disconcerting.
My encounter with Emma Watson was a bit different. I was on my lunch break, and I joined the small crowd that was watching Unit 2 film a scene. The scene was in Bill and Fleur’s cottage, at the start of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. In between takes, Emma Watson was standing very still as a team of people examined her to make sure that she didn’t have so much as a hair out of place, in case it became a continuity error. Our eyes met. I held her gaze. Emma Watson stared at me with a fixed, fearsome expression. I didn’t dare look away now. Her death-stare only ended when she was called away for the next take.
It was a very busy week in the costume department, and I did a whole range of different things. I sanded down Xenophilius Lovegood’s two identical belts, so that they would look aged when they appeared onscreen. (I’ve looked, and I’m fairly sure they do not, in fact, appear onscreen at all.) I was given four huge bags of Hogwarts ties and put in a warehouse full of school uniforms. The uniforms were for all the pupils in the Battle of Hogwarts, and I had to match the house ties to the labels on the uniforms.
But the main focus of the week was Bill and Fleur’s wedding, which was being filmed the following week. The hangar was at one end of the disused runway, and the wedding marquee was at the other end. At one point, we loaded up a van and drove it down the runway to start setting up the changing rooms. Someone suddenly remembered that we had forgotten to pack something in the van. So, being the work experience kid, I was sent back to get it as quickly as I could. I sprinted all the way up the runway, past the detritus of all the props from previous films that were too big to store easily indoors.
Everyone in the department was extremely nice to me. I spent a day assisting a rather crazy lady who was in charge of Fleur’s wedding dress. Clémence Poésy, the actress playing Fleur, was spending the day in another marquee, learning a jig for the wedding scene, so we did the fitting in a side room.
Mark Williams and Julie Walters (Arthur and Molly Weasley) were there too, watching the professional dancers learn the choreography.
“Do you have to learn the whole dance too?” I asked.
“I hope not!” Mark Williams chortled. “I think we just have to do a little bit at the end.”
“Hello, dear,” said Julie Walters. “How are you? Are you having a good time?”
The dancers were there for hours. The jig was stuck in my head for days. In the final film, it was all cut except for Bill and Fleur’s bit.
Because the Harry Potter Studios were so big. people zoomed around everywhere on golf buggies. There was a massive set of shutters at one end of the hangar, and if you drove at them with enough confidence, at the last moment the shutters would whizz upwards and let you pass.
On the way back from Fleur’s fitting, the lady I was assisting drove towards the hangar at top speed. Fortunately, the buggy’s top speed wasn’t that fast, because the shutters failed to open, and we had a rather spectacular crash. I was hurled right out of the buggy, and she couldn’t stop laughing for a couple of minutes. She said it was the first time it had ever failed to open.
It was only several weeks later that I realised I’d missed my chance to say “Dobby must have sealed the entrance!”
The lunch area was the size of a school canteen. They had six trophy cabinets on the walls, with significant props from each of the six films they’d already made. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had only come out about a month earlier.
After lunch one day, I queued up with Clémence Poésy to get a chocolate bar, and then I noticed a huge ice cream freezer. I went to have a look: they had an amazing selection, with about twenty flavours.
While I was browsing, Tom Felton came over to have a look as well. That day, he was filming the Room of Requirement scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II; I knew this because it had been my job to iron all of Blaise Zabini’s labels into his shirts for the scene. Tom Felton had a dramatic, and very convincing, black eye, and his black costume looked just like the uniforms of the canteen staff.
I felt like I ought to take advantage of the opportunity to say something to Tom Felton. So I went with the rather lame, “There are so many flavours, I don’t know how to choose!”
Instantly, Tom Felton snapped into character as though he really was one of the canteen staff. “Well, sir,” he said obsequiously, “today we have for you a wonderful selection of ice cream flavours, all prepared especially for your enjoyment here onsite – as you can see, the chocolate flavour has been particularly popular today, but I’m very partial to this caramel…”
His friends were within earshot on a nearby table, and he was playing to the crowd. His off-the-cuff patter cracked them all up, but I had no idea how to handle this situation.
“…So what’ll it be today, then, sir?” said Tom Felton.
“Um,” I said. “You choose.”
“House choice!” he cried. “House choice it is!” Armed with the scoop, he began constructing me a massive ice cream. “Look at this, sir, see how I’m giving you an extra-big scoop…”
“Actually, Tom, we usually give them a bit more than that,” said the nearest member of staff, who was standing back and enjoying the show.
Tom Felton adjusted accordingly. “Oh – I’m terribly sorry, sir – how’s this? Is that big enough for you?”
His friends were howling with laughter by this point, and I was still trying to think of something clever to say. “If you quit acting after these films, you’ll know what your new career can be,” I managed, as he ostentatiously sculpted my ice cream.
Waving away the staff with a flourish, Tom Felton took me over to the till and processed my ice cream payment. “Here you go, sir – see how careful I’m being to give you your exact change – there! Have a nice day! Enjoy!” Doing an exaggerated stretch, he announced, “Right, that’s the end of my shift,” and went to sit with his friends. I scurried away with my ice cream.
I saw him again, a few hours later, out of costume. He hailed me gleefully. “Alright mate! How was the ice cream?” he called.
“It was great, thanks,” I said. “It was a bit rich with the chocolate bar as well, though.”
“Ah, well, you’ll know for next time,” Tom Felton grinned, and sauntered off.
That’s not quite the end of the story, because three years later I was with my dad and his colleague Ed on a work trip in Serbia. I was tagging along because it was my gap year and a trip to the Balkans sounded interesting. We’d been staying in the nicest hotel in Belgrade – the lobby was so grand it had a garden and a large pond in it. The three of us had checked out and were just loading up the hire-car when Ed said, “That actor who plays the bad guy in Harry Potter is here. I just saw him in the lobby with Matt Lucas.”
I went back inside and, sure enough, Tom Felton – his hair dyed black – was just checking in.
“Mr Felton,” I said.
“Hello,” he said, with a rather distracted expression.
“You probably don’t remember me, but I did some work on the Harry Potter films,” I said.
“Oh right!” he said. “No, I’m afraid I don’t…”
“You made me an ice cream once,” I said.
Tom Felton’s face lit up. “Oh my god!” he said. “That was you! Yes! I remember that so clearly! You were standing just in front of me, and I was – ah, mate! Good to see you again! How are you?”
“I’m great,” I said. “Are you here filming something?”
“Yeah,” said Tom Felton. “It’s a much smaller thing than the Harry Potter films, of course, so it’s a completely different experience, but that’s nice in a way. Listen, mate – what are you doing this evening?”
“I’ve just checked out,” I said, crestfallen. “We’re about to drive to Novi Sad.”
“Ah, that’s a shame,” said Tom Felton. “Have a good one, yeah?”
Maybe I should have gone back to the hire-car and told Ed and my dad that I was staying in Belgrade and I would catch them up later. But I wasn’t resourceful enough for that. My night out with Tom Felton in Belgrade never happened. You win some, you lose some.