The Sca-la days are over

Scala - bookJane Giles, The Scala Cinema 1978–1993
(Fab Press, 2018)

Simon Matthews remembers a lost cinema in a lost city.

I wonder how many copies Jane Giles has sold of this book? It weighs a ton. Approximately 18” by 12” and about 4” thick, in bulk and weight it’s akin to a bag of compost that you’d buy for your garden, if you have a garden. Assuming you purchase a copy, storing it somewhere might be a challenge: you’d need a robust coffee table to prop it up on, or failing that a heavily reinforced and extra-large piece of shelving. Books of this type, normally with titles like ‘Blenheim Palace – the story of a house’, are usually published for a tiny group of collectors and somewhat larger numbers of Indian/US/Chinese tourists. It’s unusual to have one devoted to a cinema famed for its seedy location, and it straddles several genres, part story of the building, part story of the area and part an account of how a certain section of the UK counter-culture briefly prospered and then withered away.

The architectural and pyscho-geographical input is actually very well researched. Originally a music hall, the Scala began in Charlotte Street in then raffish Fitzrovia, where the bars in the 1930s were propped up by the likes of Aleister Crowley (favourite tipple, laudanum cocktail), Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and Quentin Crisp. HQ of the London Workers Film Society, for a couple of decades it screened ‘colonial’ and ‘foreign’ films later diversifying into weight-lifting and Mr Universe contests, hosting an early appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

By 1976, with Stephen Woolley (at 20 years old!) in charge, it was dubbed the Other Cinema and after abortively trying to survive as a kind of left-wing co-op (very ‘70s) commenced life as the Scala in ’78. Part cinema, part music venue and part community theatre, it has Richard Branson as an early investor, providing a jukebox. Shrewdly, Woolley and his colleagues sourced many of their films from non-theatrical distributors and specialist film collectors, thus obtaining many features long out of mainstream distribution, some of which were the only print available in the UK.

Forced out in 1981, when Channel 4 took over the building, they relocated to the Kings Cross Cinema, taking a twelve-years sub-lease from the head lessee, in a poorly maintained ex-Odeon built over tube and rail lines, with the remains of the River Fleet culverted into a drain somewhere near the basement. They were in good company in an area that then included Mole Jazz, with possibly the best catalogue of jazz vinyl in the UK, the Bell PH, an early, and very outré, lesbian and gay venue, Housman’s Bookshop, a GLC Area Housing Office (outside which hundreds would queue on advertised days to be given ‘hard to let’ flats), innumerable cheap Italian restaurants and cafes, streets of dingy hotels and bedsits and grim, strip-club pubs where violence was a distinct possibility.

The Scala became quickly known for previews of material that mainstream chains were simply not interested in. Starting with Blacks Britannica (1978, and the best documentary about race in the UK that you’ve never seen), its premieres included Eraserhead, Bad Timing, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, The Company of Wolves, Insignificance, Letter to Brezhnev, Sid and Nancy, 9½ Weeks (on a double bill with Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex), The Lost Boys, and Hairspray . Tickets for these evenings would be advertised in Time Out magazine with the lucky recipients finding themselves sitting alongside the stars and director on the night in question. A particularly remarkable event was the first (and possibly only?) UK screening, six years after its release in West Germany, of the William Burroughs/Genesis Porridge sci-fi film Decoder, with queues forming around the block solely on word of mouth.

With cinema in sharp decline for much of the ‘80s, it became a venue of last resort for features that were deemed of insufficient interest to a wide audience: I recollect catching Dune there in 1985, and thinking it was really quite good. Another specialization was themed evenings featuring a particular director or performer. Russ Meyer, the Marx Brothers, Marlene Dietrich, Andy Warhol, the UK kitchen sink, Marlon Brando, John Waters and Fassbinder were all perennial favourites. Likewise, oddities, and material banned from mainstream distribution were hugely popular with Thundercrack! being especially liked. (Who could resist anything with the strap-line ‘4 men, 3 women and a gorilla’?) There were regular all-nighters and many benefit screenings.

The non-cinema aspects were equally of note, with performances by the Hull Truck Theatre Company and several bands making appearances. Embracing psychedelia early on, The Magic Christian, Easy Rider and their ilk being regularly shown, the Scala might be said to have at least laid the foundations for the plethora of guitar bands that emerged post-1990 as part of the whole Cool Britannia thing.Scala - programme

Part of its mystique lay in it being a club, though everyone joined on the door, with the audience feeling by virtue of membership that they were part of a fraternity of culturally curious people. This was reflected in how the venue publicized itself and even in the décor of the building. The monthly programme – originals of which are now collector’s items – was a fold out, gridded and colour stained item apparently put together with Letraset and glue and looking not unlike a Gilbert and George picture, with the details of what was being screened slotted into boxes for each day of the month. It was a masterpiece of information and Pop Art in its own right, whilst outside the cavernous auditorium was a densely graffitied interior in the style of Basquiat and Haring.

This being the UK, all of this was done without any state or local government funding and it constantly operated at a disadvantage. Looked at from the perspective of 2019 with 24 x 7 x 365 access to everything it seems extraordinary to remember that well into the 1980s the powers that be still considered B-movies like The Wild Angels and The Trip so corrupting and dangerous that prosecutions would follow if anyone dared to screen them. Surely, they realized even then that they weren’t very good films? Even Camden Council, a haven of soft-left politics, cut up rough at one point about Ai No Corrida and Salo.

Reading the book brought back memories of the huge 1980s and ‘90s moral panic about ‘video nasties’, and one is left with an overall impression of the authorities desperately sitting with a finger in the wall of the dam whilst the internet tidal wave approaches. Within a very short space of time, their ability to stop people looking at material they deemed dubious had gone forever.

Who went there? Art students, fashion students, cineastes of all ages, lonely singles, the curious, gays and lesbians, punks, general counter-culture types and intellectuals. It was a very lively place. There was sex to be had (and involuntarily observed) in the corridors and stalls. Drugs were freely consumed. A suicide: the victim threw themselves out of a toilet window into the street 40 feet below. A dead body found when the lights went up: deemed heart failure. A fisting tent at a women-only event (not something you’d find at the Granada Tooting), and an all-night session of fetish films to which the fire brigade had to be called.

Admissions started out at 6,000–8,000 per month. But after repeated Thatcher and Major recessions, this had fallen to 4,000 by mid-1992. Along the way Woolley’s company (Palace: responsible for Mona Lisa and Scandal as well as a partial involvement with Absolute Beginners) went into receivership.

As film digitalized, it became harder to find workable prints and some titles completely stopped being available. Not that this was solely down to the march of progress. Many production companies and distributors began hoarding their wares for remarketing in DVD format. El Topo, for instance, was withdrawn from circulation by Allan Klein’s ABKCO in the late ‘80s. Part of the Scala’s appeal had been their regular mystery screenings, usually of banned or copyrighted-out-of-existence works. A Clockwork Orange made discreet appearances from 1986. Now this came back to bite them.Scala - droog

In April 1992 Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece was screened again and ninety-six people paid to see it. The Society of Film Distributors started legal proceedings (not, as is thought, Kubrick) with the case reaching court just as Camden Council withdrew the late-night licence and as the sub-lease came up for renewal, or termination. Exhausted and with inadequate funds, the Scala bowed out in June 1993 with a final night double-bill of The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General.

What did for it in the end wasn’t losing the Clockwork Orange case (a fighting fund raised most of the money needed to pay the legal costs) nor the late-night licence being withdrawn. It was the lease. The landlord wanted far too much to renew it and the Scala faded away.

Much of the surrounding area did likewise in the years that followed. The GLC Housing Office was already long gone (who needs hard-to-let flats?) and Mole Jazz, scuppered by a rent review, disappeared soon afterwards. In fact, many of the premises that through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s had facilitated London’s live music, film, books, poetry and radical theatre would vanish in much the same way, almost none of them intrinsically ‘unviable’ and almost all them the victims of lease renewals, rent reviews and a continued lack of state and local government funding.

Greatly mourned, many might ask if the Scala could have carried on. The official narrative is no, citing the prevalence of the internet together with the ubiquity of You Tube and DVD re-issues. Floating around too, albeit unspoken, is a firm belief that people just don’t ‘do’ things the way they might have done back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when places like the Scala had its day.

But the Scala does still exist. It re-opened in 1999 after an elaborate and expensive refurbishment and operates now as a prestige concert venue, showing live music 3–4 times per week with ticket booking via the internet, preferably in advance. One presumes it could also show films if the operators thought that worthwhile. Perhaps they take the same view that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have taken since the mid ‘90s, namely that with so much access to films of all types available elsewhere there really isn’t any point in trying to programme an interesting array of features on TV.

However, the recent experience of Talking Pictures TV suggests that things might not be that simple. Available as a free-view channel, TPTV was set up by Noel Cronin, a TV and film producer, who had bought up many films (and their copyright) from distribution libraries and independent collectors as these closed down their operations from the ‘90s onwards. After several years spent (fruitlessly) trying to interest large national TV operators in hiring his material he set up TPTV in 2014. Screening exclusively feature films, its market share today is roughly the same as that of Channel 4+1 and Sky1, not immense but not dismal either. A couple of weeks back it showed Cabaret (a Scala favourite) preceded by What a Crazy World (a 1963 musical based on a Joan Littlewood play, set in the East End), a double bill that could easily have played in Kings Cross thirty years earlier.

Accepting that TPTV doesn’t have access to as wide a range of films as Woolley and his colleagues, it seems clear that there does indeed remain an audience for a cinema of this type…if only a venue could be found whose owners were happy to accept a reasonable rent and financial support for the arts allowed this to be possible. No one is talking here about relying exclusively on a celluloid based regime with 35mm projectors pointed like artillery pieces at a distant screen. It ought to be possible to utilize modern technology so that some of the abundance of redundant retail premises littering the towns of the UK could be used for this purpose, or similar.

The book doesn’t explore any of this, but Jane Giles has done a marvellous job. This is a nicely produced and invaluable reference work that follows the tangled thread of the Scala in all its guises from the ’30s through to the ’90s. It will appeal to those who will enjoy it as a record of times past and a requiem for an analogue paradise as well as cultural and social historians who will find it an invaluable reference work. Could it not be the start of a mini-series? Followed, perhaps, by the Marquee 1958–1996?artwork-scala

see also


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