On the edge of my circle of friends at school was a strange boy who claimed that with modifications, innocent substances could yield symptoms of pharmaceutical intoxication. I thought of him as I stood in the dark slick street behind Leicester Square, with his banana skin cigarettes and home made nutmeg capsules ('Take twenty and hold on!'). My knees were soft, my head sore, but I had a feeling of euphoria and a sense of detachment from the world, as though I were at a slight angle to the universe, untouchable and just a little giggly.
But no drug had caused this altered state: I had just emerged from the cinema.
My friend Ollie is the perfect age for Harry Potter. When the arc light of the Bloomsbury/Warner Brothers marketing departments shone pitilessly into the eyes of eleven year olds, Ollie found himself in the epicentre of the demographic, pupils at pinpoints as he devoured book after book, film after film. In JK Rowling's castle, there is a teaspoon with his name on it. So he was stunned when I said I'd seen neither a frame of film nor read a sentence of the books in the Potterverse. I haven't been avoiding them, I said, wondering why I suddenly had the need to justify my actions, it's just that, well... They'd never appealed. But Ollie was enthusiastic about them, so I offered to watch the movies.
Be careful what you promise your friends.
A few weeks later, Leicester Square's Prince Charles Cinema announced that they were going to show every Harry Potter film over a weekend, and Ollie announced he'd scored a couple of tickets. I cleared my diary and warned my family that I might return a changed man. Their reactions filled me with apprehension.
My mother had actually read about half of the first book, until she 'looked up and caught my reflection and saw a victim of marketing.' For the same reason, she refuses to touch Fifty Shades: 'Its not that it's pornography, it's that it's badly written pornography.' Her final word: 'Why don't you watch a film for grown-ups?'
My brother had watched the first film with his sons, and thought it 'quite good.' But he had made the same critique of The Phantom Menace, which resulted in a worried phone call to my parents: was he... all right?
And so I bid goodbye to my loved ones on the first sunny Saturday of the year to sit in a dark cinema for ten hours. Prepared with loose clothes, flight socks, and a selection of quiet snacks, Ollie and I joined the throng of schoolgirls outside. On closer inspection, their uniforms were costumes. 'I'm a Hufflepuff,' said one girl cryptically as she offered me a Dorito. 'She's a Slytherin,' she added, making a face at a pretty blonde pushing into the queue ahead. She squeaked with excitement when she found out I was a Harry Potter virgin. How many times she had seen the films? 'Too many to count!' I was relieved that they could withstand repeat viewing.
All the films are two and a half hours long. Even the first one, which I was told by everyone who claimed to know, is 'a kids' film.' I thought the music was overbearing, the acting iffy, and after a strong start, didn't get going until 90 minutes in. Easily an hour too long.
Fortunately, a boy from Gryffindor told me, they pick up, 'especially from film five onwards, when David Yates directs. He's more of an auteur.'
Chamber of Secrets was a nadir, but Gary Oldman's presence in Prisoner of Azkaban rekindled my enthusiasm. Even so, when Ollie slipped out and returned with a half bottle of vodka, I felt the bonds of friendship strengthen.
Day two: the spring in my step spoke of summit fever. Ollie, my Sherpa, worried that I would run out of oxygen and die on the mountainside, but I pulled up my flight socks and got chatting to yesterday's Hufflepuff girl. There was an embarrassing moment when she mentioned the death of a major character. 'Spoliers!' I cried, clapping my hands over my ears. 'Er, he died yesterday,' she said, witheringly. Was it the vodka, or was it that by the end of the day I was just letting the pictures wash over me?
Day two was easier than day one; but even so, total immersion is a bad way to watch twenty hours of film. Ollie dropped characters' names that entirely passed me by. Knowing the story in advance would have prevented the feeling that my brain was running out of my ears, and pacing the films to, say, one a week, would have avoided the distrust of reality that comes after a massive overdose of CGI.
We emerged with sore eyes, unsteady and giddy in the night. I approached sleep with apprehension of my own dreams. 'How was it?' my partner asked as I fell in through the front door. 'It was like losing your virginity at an orgy,' I said.
Thanks to The Prince Charles Cinema for their kind support.