Over the last two years, the ingenious jokes and toys sold by that whimsically named company ‘Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes’ have taken the commercial world by storm. Sunday Times Magazine reporter Sandra Bellingham went to interview its owners, successful young inventors Fred and George Weasley.
The offices of the company surprise you when you visit. You don’t know what to expect – perhaps a tower block with a giant ‘W’ placed outside at an artistic angle, perhaps a ramshackle old workshop with doorbells that squirt water at you. What you find is a small but elegant little suite of offices with a friendly atmosphere.
A wholly privately owned company, WWW is the brainchild of the fresh-faced entrepreneurs Fred and George Weasley, who look even younger than their thirty years of age. They are identical twins, both sporting a shock of red hair and an almost permanent cheeky grin – all but indistinguishable to outsiders. The only way I can tell them apart is to glance at the jumpers they wear, bearing the letters ‘F’ and ‘G’. We business journalists have sometimes suspected that which twin wears which jumper is decided on the spur of the moment just before the interview.
“We wouldn’t do that though, would we, George?” says the one wearing the ‘G’.
“Yes we would,” says his brother, looking surprised. “And you’re George today, aren’t you?” They waggle their eyebrows and beam at me.
The brothers appeared from nowhere a couple of years ago with their first products, a range of joke items. Best-sellers have included ‘Sharp Cards’ which move from hand to hand at unpredictable moments when no-one is looking; ‘Soft Steps’ which sit in front of the house with perfect innocence until unsuspecting visitors tread on them and find themselves stuck; and of course the ‘Rude Rodents’, immensely popular with children, realistic-looking rats, rabbits, and guinea-pigs that suddenly offer insulting comments when anyone passes by.
These items on their own would have been enough to cement a reputation, but the brothers then began to produce a range of toys that have enjoyed even greater success. They appear to have built on the technology – some would say near-magic – of the Rodents and discovered how to make voice activation work effectively. The current product lines include the ‘Marching Minions’ range of toy soldiers that move by themselves, drilling with parade-ground precision; the famous ‘Chatterbox Dolls’ whose voice module is so sophisticated it can hold what appears to be a real conversation with a child; and of course their immensely popular ‘Red Engines’, delightfully quaint model locomotives that can follow an actual schedule (unlike the British railway companies).
“Would it be fair to say you’re really just great big kids at heart, then?” I enquire.
“I suppose we are,” agrees Fred with a smirk. “Most of the time, anyway – but we’re dead serious about business. And we’ve been through some tough times. Don’t think we haven’t.”
“A lot of people we know have had it worse, though,” George points out to him. When I look curious, he adds, “Like our brother-in-law. But he was the one who gave us the money to start out, years and years ago.”
“True,” says Fred, nodding. “Like he told us, you need a few laughs when things aren’t going well. If our stuff helps people, that’s great.”
“So you’re just a pair of philanthropists, then?” I ask, not without a degree of scepticism.
“That’s us,” says George, beaming. “Well, we would be if we could spell it, anyway. But mostly we like to think of ourselves as, you know, just your ordinary everyday average creative geniuses!”
George Weasley may have been jesting, but ‘creative geniuses’ is a term that has often been applied to these brothers. Their products are so cleverly constructed that no-one outside the WWW offices has been able to understand how they work. Efforts by competitors to reverse engineer them have resulted only in frustration; it seems that any attempt to open the items up causes their inner workings to fuse into an amorphous mass, as indistinguishable as their manufacturers, so that nothing useful can be gleaned. X-rays and spectroscopic techniques have produced very disappointing results and suggest that the toys are shielded in some way.
“Do you think this will be enough?” I ask. “It’s well-known that you haven’t applied for patent protection on your toys. You aren’t worried that people will copy your ideas?”
“No, we aren’t,” says Fred. “Well, all right, we are a bit, but there aren’t that many people who could do what we do. And we’re definitely not going to write down how we do it.”
“It’s not like we haven’t learned from other people, anyway,” adds George. “We’re constantly amazed at what can be done with technology these days. Some firms have managed to produce quite decent imitations of our stuff. But good luck to them. We aim to keep one step – or several steps – ahead for as long as we can.”
Their products are made and shipped in the greatest of secrecy. Multinational toy companies have reportedly offered a standing $250,000 bounty to any industrial espionage expert who can uncover the details of their manufacturing processes or supply chain. No employee has yet stepped forward to give away their commercial secrets; but are the brothers worried that the lure of such riches might lead one of their staff to betray them?
“Nah, not at all,” says Fred confidently. “This is a little family-run business, and we all trust each other.”
“And of course all our stuff is actually made by elves anyway,” says George. They burst out laughing once more, and I can’t help but join in. Their good humour is infectious.
“Aren’t you worried about Santa getting jealous?” I joke.
“Nah, he’s only got a seasonal business,” comes back quick as lightning from George.
“I think we even offered to subcontract if his order book ever got too full,” offers his brother with a perfectly straight face. “And there are lots of the little fellows about, anyway. Plenty for all of us.”
I try not to be distracted by their horseplay. I tell myself that I am a serious journalist, and try a tougher question. “How do you feel about calls for your products to be thoroughly tested for safety? What about the stories of mysterious official attempts to remove your products from sale?”
They exchange glances. “We positively guarantee that no lasting harm will be done to anyone from the use of our products,” says one of them, in an unusually serious voice. “All we want is to give people a bit of a laugh, and make a little money doing it.”
“Well, a lot of money actually,” says his twin.
“Fair point,” he agrees. “And you only get to see the ones that work! My wife would string me up if we sold anything remotely dangerous in the High Street.”
“So would our mother. And our sister-in-law, come to think of it. She’s always nagging us about the working conditions of our staff …”
“But of course it helps to keep officialdom off your back when your dad is high up in the government!”
The two of them exchange glances and laugh with great hilarity at their joke – but in fact there are persistent rumours that the twins’ success is somehow due to influence and family connections, allowing them privileged access to advanced technologies developed in secret government laboratories. They simply smile and shake their heads when questioned on the point.
“If you told me, you’d have to kill me?” I say, probing.
“Well maybe not actually kill you,” says Fred, pretending to consider the matter. “We might have to wipe your memory though …”
Memories of the twins, who hail from the quiet Devon village of Ottery St Catchpole, can in fact be hard to come by. The few people who remember them from their younger days in the village recall their family as pleasant but slightly odd people, who generally kept themselves very much to themselves and never encouraged visitors. That didn’t stop George from sweeping local shop girl Tracey off her feet, however, and she now fills the position of ‘general adviser’ for her husband and her brother-in-law.
“I have to keep them in line,” she says with a smile. “You know what men are like! They love gadgets, but they do sometimes get carried away. I have to tell them what is and isn’t practical in a WWW product, because they don’t always understand where the boundaries are.” She grins. “Still, if they did, George would never have got involved with me in the first place, so I wouldn’t change them for the world. Even if they are pure trouble sometimes.” She wears a slightly enigmatic look, and I feel that whatever the Weasley family secrets might be, she too has now learned to keep them.
One of those secrets is the whereabouts of their factory, rumoured to be in a hidden foreign location, although the brothers’ preferred term is ‘workshop’ – their proud boast is that their products are all hand-crafted. They are certainly in short supply compared to the demand, although some claim that this is just a marketing tactic.
“But we’re determined no-one will be able to say that our stuff isn’t worth the money,” says George confidently.
“Even if it is expensive. We wouldn’t want to upset the economy, would we? Don’t want too many competitors getting in on the act,” adds Fred.
“Not that we’re worried. We’re the ones who saw the market opportunity, and just as important, the ones who had the knowledge and the contacts to prove that we could bring this off without causing any kind of catastrophe.”
“There is government backing then?” I ask suspiciously. The twins just wink and tap their noses, giving me the kind of look of exaggerated secrecy that could mean anything or nothing.
As I leave, I can’t help but make the comment that others have made, mostly in jest, but sometimes with an uneasy seriousness. “You know, your products are so advanced that they almost seem like magic!”
The brothers look at each other in surprise for a moment, then grin. “Well, you know what they say,” Fred tells me. “‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, right?”
“Or was it ‘any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology’?” asks his brother, mock-thoughtfully.
The two of them chuckle uproariously as I leave with a smile on my face. Whatever their secrets, the Weasley brothers certainly are a bit of a laugh.
Author’s Notes: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ is of course a famous quote from science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. It struck me one day that in the Potterverse context it might be amusing to flip it round the other way, and the twins seemed the natural lead characters to explore the idea with. :)