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Martin Freeman's journey to the centre of Middle Earth

If there were any doubts about expectations surrounding The Hobbit, they evaporated at the recent world premiere in New Zealand.

Middle Earth's the Shire – or at least a bit of it – had been recreated in downtown Wellington. Giant model trolls looked on as thousands of fans – many dressed as elves, dwarves and wizards – lined the snaking 500m-long red carpet. "I Bags Bilbo" read one sign held up by an adoring fan in the hope, perhaps, of catching the attention of British actor Martin Freeman, the star of this feverishly anticipated take on JRR Tolkien's 1937 classic children's novel.

Looking at Freeman, his blue eyes hidden behind tinted Ray-Bans, it was hard not to think of our encounter two months earlier in a discreet London hotel. Tim from The Office, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Dr Watson in Sherlock – he has played his share of iconic characters, but Bilbo Baggins is something else entirely. Never mind a year shooting in the Shire, Freeman's typical English reserve had left him in restrained mood. "I never felt, 'Martin, you're the Hobbit.' I never felt it, and I haven't felt it yet," he told me. "I might do at the premiere."

While the 41-year-old was joined by such A-list co-stars as Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly and Elijah Wood, there was one man to rule them all. Peter Jackson, New Zealand's favourite son, stood flanked by the country's Prime Minister John Kay and the mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown. The filmmaker, who turned New Zealand into a major tourist destination after his landmark take on Tolkien's fantasy trilogy The Lord Of The Rings, looked on, almost overwhelmed. Nearly a decade on, he was back to present part one (of three) of his LOTR prequel The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Rarely, though, has a title been so apt.

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