Scams, scandals and skullduggery. How the tabloids lapped up the antics of Harry Potter and friends over the past decade
Take three wholesome child stars and a blockbusting book. Mix in some Hollywood and a lexicon of bewitching words. Then sprinkle on some prepubescent magic. What you’ve got is every tabloid editor’s dream. When news broke in 1998 that JK Rowling’s wizardry romps — already a kids’ literary sensation — were being turned into films by Warner Bros, the tabloid press gave a whoop of delight. A series that had already captured the collective imagination of every reading age across the globe was about to get a much, much bigger audience. By the time Potter hit the cinema, everyone would want to read all about it. The papers were delighted to oblige.
“We’ve Gotta Potter and He’s Just Magic”, beamed The Sun above a picture of an unknown baby-faced threesome.
They were an 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe, 10-year-old Emma Watson and 11-year-old Rupert Grint — the children chosen to play Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Their journey into the limelight had begun.
Harry Potter’s first steps into newsprint were necessarily nervous — it’s hard for journalists to justify revealing details of the private lives of the under-16s. The papers bided their time, making do with family fun and heart-warming gossip. There were cheesy, staged shots of the young stars looking cute: Watson giggling about how she’d met Hear’Say; Grint confessing he avoided homework. Only Radcliffe raised the temperature when he blushed that girls at his premieres were “pretty cute”. The Sun duly dubbed him “Flirty Harry”. His life story was already entering the annals of tabloid folklore.
Rowling did not get off so lightly. A fully grown Muggle from the start, she was fair game. Amid tales of her million-pound earnings she found herself hit by one scandal after the next. Her ex-husband sobbed his story to The Mail on Sunday in 1999, recounting the details of their rocky romance. The papers reported her private nuptials in 2001 to Potter lookalike Dr Neil Murray, spuriously referring to the event as a: “secret Boxing Day ceremony”. An American author, Nancy Stouffer, claimed Potter was plagiarised from her book, The Legend of Rah and the Muggles, but Rowling saw her off in court in 2002. She later spoke about her battle with depression, recalling life as a single mum.
Radcliffe’s most revealing moment was yet to come: when Potter got his wand out on stageMany of the scandals unfolded on the periphery of Potter Inc. There was the “drugs probe”, when drugs paraphernalia (but no drugs) were found at the studios where The Philosopher’s Stone was being filmed. Later came the Pope’s rant against the demonic films — “Catholic Blast for Potter”.
A French academic, Pierre Bruno, started a storm when he claimed Potter was a sexist pig. “Potter Le Porker”, quipped the Scottish Daily Record. The Independent clarified Bruno’s Marxist-structuralist analysis: “Harry Potter is a sexist neo-conservative meritocrat who perpetuates a ‘degrading image of women’.” Blissfully unaware of all this, the young cast was growing up fast. By the time they reached the age of 16, they would be hot for the press.
The first to fall was tubby teen Jamie Waylett, who played the Hogwarts bully Vincent Crabbe. “Harry Pothead: Hogwarts actor’s shock arrest”, yelped The Sun in 2009, when Waylett was arrested in a black Audi with a pal, eight bags of cannabis and a knife. The drugs squad raided his home in Kilburn, northwest London, to uncover £2,000-worth of weed: 10 plants of the class-B drug sprouting in tents, under hydroponic lights.
“Harry Pothead is facing spell inside: Teen star drug shame”, The Sun reported, as Waylett waited to see if he’d get up to 14 years in the clink. As if by magic, he got 120 hours’ community service. “I extend my sincere apologies to the producers, cast and crew and all at Warners and most especially to all Harry Potter fans,” he sighed as he left Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
Next up was Radcliffe himself. It was the scoop they’d been waiting for. The Daily Mirror spotted the diminutive wizard puffing what they thought was a joint at a pal’s party in Camden. “Harry Pothead”, whooped the Mirror’s front page, showing an elated Radcliffe sporting a marker-penned moustache. Inside, they delightedly reported “The Philosopher’s stoned”. However, the high was rather short lived. The pocket-sized warlock’s people quickly moved in to “categorically deny the allegations”. It was only a roll-up, honest, they said.
Harry’s love life was an easier target. Early on, Radcliffe became every screaming teen’s pin-up. Potter totty hurled underwear at the pint-sized enchanter, declaring undying love on banners scrawled with the words “Mrs Radcliffe is here”. Word got round that one gate-crashed his hotel draped only in a towel.
On screen, his romantic life picked up when, in The Order of the Phoenix, he had his first kiss with pretty co-star Katie Leung, 19, who played Potter’s first girlfriend, Cho Chang. By the time Radcliffe turned 16 the papers were breathless.
I am Dan the Man”, grinned the Daily Mail, as they told how he had swapped “Hogwarts for sex scenes” and “smoking” (cigarettes, that is). They noted he had turned “From Harry to Heartthrob”. The Guardian’s headline told it in Dan’s own words: “If the script says have sex, I have sex”. Rumours of his first off-screen love story to emerge surrounded Amy Byrne, an assistant hairdresser. Their eyes reportedly met through his pudding-bowl haircut on the Goblet of Fire. “The older girl who’s cast a spell on Harry”, simpered the Daily Mail as they revelled in his close friendship with the 23-year-old brunette, seven years his senior. The Daily Star sniggered, “Harry’s got a curl-friend”, but his most revealing moment was yet to come: when Potter got his wand out on stage.