As a Harry Potter film show in Durham Cathedral sells out within hours, Simon Fearn looks at the enduring appeal of Hogwarts, and Durham's connections to its film versions

WHEN 1,500 tickets for special screenings of the first Harry Potter film in Durham Cathedral went on sale, they sold out within 12 hours – as sure a sign as any that the Potter spell is far from being broken.

In October, fans old and young will flock to relive the magic of Chris Columbus’ 2001 film in the majestic backdrop of Durham’s famous Norman cathedral.

The lucky ticketholders will experience the first film in the very building where some of the most important scenes in the franchise were filmed.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the young wizard and his friends encounter the terrifying three-headed dog Fluffy in the cathedral’s Triforium (dubbed the Forbidden Corridor in the films), while in the second movie, Harry earns Dobby the House Elf his freedom in the cathedral cloisters.

Ruth Robson, head of marketing and events at the cathedral, puts the huge popularity of the event partly down to the eagerness of “the millennium generation who grew up with the books and the films” to re-live part of their childhood. One of the most striking aspects of JK Rowling’s success is how her books encouraged millennials to read for pleasure, and even shaped how they view the world.

But how did a children’s novel which faced rejection from multiple publishers become a global phenomenon?

Dr Martin Richardson, an academic at Durham University, whose Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion module became the first of its kind in Europe, shed some light. Each year Dr Richardson and his students cast an academic eye over Rowling’s books, taking in topics such as “the remaking of England”, “the commodification of education” and “Harry Potter and the good citizen”.

“The real magic of the series is that it worked: it came out at the wrong time,” Richardson explains. “Reading for pleasure was in relative decline, particularly among boys – this was a time when computer games were increasing in sophistication and home computing was starting to become the norm. Children and adults had plenty to do other than read books – books require commitment.

“Yet it worked, and it worked before all the media hype got into gear – before the films, before the midnight book launches, before the theme parks, studio tours and all the marketing. So why did it work? In truth, nobody knows. In the end, one must come back to the story – the plotline, the characters and the setting.”

Dr Richardson’s module gained international press coverage for its first “sorting ceremony” in 2010, which fittingly took place in University College’s Great Hall, the preferred filming location for Hogwarts’ Great Hall, though availability issues meant the producers opted for Christ Church, Oxford instead. Each year students on the module are sorted into the Hogwarts houses and even compete for the House Cup – fortunately with no meddling Dumbledore to pull the strings in Gryffindor’s favour.

“The themes we cover in Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion are still relevant today – and indeed, always have been and always will be,” Dr Richardson continues. “Potter has now entered the nation’s, if not the world’s, cultural DNA and things like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts films have all contributed to keeping the cauldron simmering.”

Durham student Riana Dixon is a paid-up member of what Dr Richardson calls “the Harry Potter generation”, and her relationship with the city has been directly shaped by the boy wizard. Upon arrival, Riana joined the increasing popular Durham University Harry Potter Society, and this year helped to organise Durham’s first Yule Ball – a recreation of a glitzy evening in Rowling’s fourth novel where Hogwarts students fraternise with their counterparts at other wizarding schools.

“As a Potter fan, I remember looking around Durham for the first time, seeing the castle, the cathedral and the Bailey and feeling like parts of Harry Potter had been brought to life,” she says. “It was a large part of what made me love Durham.”

For many students, studying in Durham is the next best thing to enrolling at Hogwarts. One needn’t read Rowling to imagine towering Gothic architecture, misty English countryside and adolescents in billowing robes – they’re right here on our doorstep.

One home for Potterheads in Durham is the Dark Matter Café, a treasure trove of nerd and geek culture.

“About 80 per cent of our regulars are Harry Potter fans,” says managing director Dan Pye, and the staff are avid fans too. They’re currently planning a trip to Hogwarts (the version at Universal Studio’s Orlando resort) and enjoying Primark’s new Harry Potter range.

“The structure of the films was a big part of the appeal for me,” says Mr Pye. “The films grew up with the fans watching them and kept very much to the books. Anything with magic in that people can relate to – that’s not beyond the realms of believability – is bound to be a hit.”

Indeed, one of Potter’s selling points is the way it combines the fantastical world of magic with the everyday struggles of growing up, along with universal themes and eternal moral questions.

From academics to students to café owners, no one seems immune to the Potter craze in Durham. It’s difficult to believe that this global phenomenon all began when, 20 years ago this year, a struggling single mother published her debut novel and the world was irrevocably changed.