Those of us Millennials who grew up reading and watching the Harry Potter series know our Wingardium Leviosas from our Riddikulus, and can tell the difference between Fred and George Weasley even when wearing an Obscuro blindfold. Twenty years on from the release of the first film in the eight-series franchise, we still know exactly which house we belong to (I’m Gryffindor, obviously).
We can wheel off plum quotes on cue (“YOU’RE A WIZARD, HARRY!”) and recall the most memorable moments with Proustian relish: when Professor Quirrell took his turban off (we knew he was dodgy!); when we found out that Professor Snape was the Half-Blood Prince (and wasn’t evil after all); when Ron and Hermione kissed (aww); and – the worst part ever from the whole franchise – the very traumatising Spider Forest in Aragog’s Lair. Shook, still.
And the franchise that has been around almost longer than I’ve been alive continues to attract a global audience. Even during a pandemic, tourists visiting London still queue up at King Cross Station to visit the famed Platform 9 ¾ – that is, they wait patiently to be photographed next to a brick wall with half a luggage trolley sticking out of it, usually with their Hogwarts’ house scarf of choice draped around their necks.
Feel old yet? You should. Because on New Year’s Day, to mark that 20th anniversary release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the key cast are reuniting for a TV special on Sky – led, of course, by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grinch. Our adolescent heroes are now, respectively, sharp intake of breath… 32, 31 and 33. That’s enough to make your brain Engorgio.
Two decades after its release, the Harry Potter franchise continues to be loved by millions. But, astonishingly, there is a minority of people who have never, ever read the books or seen the films. GASP! I know!
Who are they and where have they been? UNDER A ROCK? Isolating in Azkaban? Apparently so. But, according to the poor souls we tracked down, they have “valid” reasons.
“Girl, it was banned in my house,” says 27-year-old Iman Leila from London. “My mum once beat me once because I brought the book home. She said I was bringing evil spirits into the house and that it’s juju.”
Growing up in a West African household, anything related to witchcraft and spells was considered “bad juju”, AKA bad vibes. But when Iman turned 18, she caved. “I read all the books and watched all of the films. I fell in love with the franchise.”
So did Harry Potter bring juju in her life?
“Well, my life has been going pretty well – apart from not having a man – so maybe it did.”
But Iman isn’t alone. Many others didn’t grow up with their parents reading them the Harry Potter books in bed, the way I did. Hell, some didn’t have books in the house.
Tom Ramussen, 30, who grew up in Lancaster and now lives in London, tells me that reading wasn’t something that they or their friends did for pleasure growing up.
“So Harry Potter just passed us by. I knew about it, but not in any significant way. And it wasn’t a choice – it just wasn’t in our orbit,” they tell me. “Then when I went to posh university, the shock on (posh) people’s faces when I told them I hadn’t read it was honestly like I’d killed a family member.”
Then you add in the fact that Harry, Hermoine and Ron were pretty much middle class. One big, red, class flag is the fact that if you’re not blessed with witchcraft or wizardry, you are known as nothing more than a muggle (AKA peasant in IRL terms). “Harry might be an orphan, but find me a working class family in that book!” exclaims Ramussen. “I’ve watched the movies and there ain’t one. Harry Potter is about a big posh elite school and white, middle class exceptionalism.”
Now that we’re all “adults”, have people had a sudden urge to watch the films with Christmas around the corner? Ramussen sheepishly admits that they have watched three of the films, but “she’s still a TERF”, referring to the author-who-shall-not-be-named.
In 2017, a special Harry Potter-themed YouGov survey found that 54 per cent of Britons said they identified with a selection of Hogwarts-based personality traits, choosing “hard work, patience, justice and loyalty”, the hallmarks of a Hufflepuff. Over a third (36 per cent) fit the Ravenclaw bill, identifying with “intelligence, creativity, learning and wit”. Only a tiny proportion identified with the values of Gryffindor (”courage, bravery, nerve and chivalry”), while only five per cent had the “ambition, cunning, leadership and resourcefulness” of Slytherin.
Yero, from London, said she and her sister were given The Philosopher’s Stone by their Nigerian mother, but she didn’t read or care about it.
“I was only, like, five or something when it came out, so it didn’t interest me,” she says. “I went on to Jacqueline Wilson and horror books a few years later. But by the time all the books came out later, at my Church of England school we weren’t even allowed to read them. And this was a very white, middle class school.”
Yero adds that she was surprised when so many of her friends based their whole lives around the franchise.
“It then became this culture of me not being able to understand references and pretending I could so I didn’t look dumb. I am 29 and some of my friends say that liking Harry Potter is a personality trait. I have seen one or two scenes when it’s on TV and flicked past, and I know Alfie Enoch was in it,” she says, referring to one of the few Black actors (who played Dean Thomas) in the film series, “but that’s about it!”
So, whether or not you’re a Potterhead, the Harry Potter franchise continues to be part of Britain’s national identity – fantasy and escapism, schooling, class, mundanity of society, government, sports, multiculturalism and animals.
And, if the franchise has passed you by, there’s still ample opportunity to immerse yourself in the worlds of witchcraft and wizardry, whether that’s in the hungover comfort blanket of Sky’s New Year’s Day reunion special or the upcoming Fantastic Beasts movie, the third in the prequel franchise.
That is, if you don’t believe in juju.