Christopher Owens 🎥 Scala!!! or, The Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World's Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits.

Despite the dominance of streaming services, there’s an indefinable magic about the cinema.

Be it a full house or a select few gatherers, devoting time to watching a film in a dark theatre with strangers can be a transcendent experience as one experiences the joys and sorrows of whatever is on the screen at that particular moment.

And the more underground movies can attract a certain…clientele. People who you would normally cross the road to avoid but none of that matters when you’re all lumped in the same space watching a double bill of Salo and Caligula,

And that was the Scala Cinema.

Opening in 1978 off Tottenham Court Road in London before moving to Kings Cross in 1981, the latter already had rock n roll pedigree thanks to two photographs taken there being used for iconic albums covers (Transformer by Lou Reed and Raw Power by the Stooges). The initial Scala featured gigs from Throbbing Gristle, 23 Skidoo and…er… Spandau Ballet, but would also screen cult underground films from the likes of David Lynch and Derek Jarman.

Once the move to Kings Cross happened the audience went with them and unsurprisingly given the state of the area at that time, added alcos, drug addicts, rent boys and people wanting somewhere to sleep started piling in.

Witing about similar setups in New York, Bill Landis summed them up perfectly:

Grind houses were opulent, old-style movie palaces with chandeliers, opera seats and huge screens. They seated several hundred people and played all kinds of films, across genres. A shoebox theatre catered to the adult audience, seated eighty to 200, usually on one floor, and was shaped like a rectangular shoebox…. It was a very egalitarian form of entertainment that attracted all sorts — kids cutting school, people on dates, inner-city people escaping the cold or heat. The biggest hits cost five dollars.

By all account it was a magical period, and this documentary does a wonderful job of highlighting it. Filled with anecdotes from famous attendees (Stewart Lee, Adam Buxton, Matt Johnston, Jah Wobble, Barry Adamson) and staff, Scala!!! rightfully places the cinema as being somewhere in-between grindhouse and art house (quite a feat) and also being a centre for radical action (due to the various benefits for the miners’ strike and gay rights).

Quite a few humourous tales from the staff involving dead bodies, dislocated arms and LSD give the viewer a hearty chuckle and make them a tad jealous that they did not experience such events! But there are moments of solemness, making you realise that hosting an assortment of misfits and weirdos may seem like fun, but the more ‘on edge’ characters can make life a misery for you.

One area that is hinted at, but not discussed, is the gentrification of Kings Cross. Starting in the early 90’s, the drug dealers and sex workers were pushed out as construction for the Eurostar began (although it is worth noting that violence in the area had increased as well). Around this time, a secret screening of A Clockwork Orange (banned in Britain since 1974). A court case ensued and this, combined with the end of the lease, spelled the end of the cinema. It is hinted at that the cinema had riled the establishment, but this seems like wish fulfilment thinking especially when the above is taken into consideration.

Nonetheless, this not just an excellent look at a long-lost part of London night life but also a reminder of the power that cinema still has.

 

⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.

Scala

Christopher Owens 🎥 Scala!!! or, The Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World's Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits.

Despite the dominance of streaming services, there’s an indefinable magic about the cinema.

Be it a full house or a select few gatherers, devoting time to watching a film in a dark theatre with strangers can be a transcendent experience as one experiences the joys and sorrows of whatever is on the screen at that particular moment.

And the more underground movies can attract a certain…clientele. People who you would normally cross the road to avoid but none of that matters when you’re all lumped in the same space watching a double bill of Salo and Caligula,

And that was the Scala Cinema.

Opening in 1978 off Tottenham Court Road in London before moving to Kings Cross in 1981, the latter already had rock n roll pedigree thanks to two photographs taken there being used for iconic albums covers (Transformer by Lou Reed and Raw Power by the Stooges). The initial Scala featured gigs from Throbbing Gristle, 23 Skidoo and…er… Spandau Ballet, but would also screen cult underground films from the likes of David Lynch and Derek Jarman.

Once the move to Kings Cross happened the audience went with them and unsurprisingly given the state of the area at that time, added alcos, drug addicts, rent boys and people wanting somewhere to sleep started piling in.

Witing about similar setups in New York, Bill Landis summed them up perfectly:

Grind houses were opulent, old-style movie palaces with chandeliers, opera seats and huge screens. They seated several hundred people and played all kinds of films, across genres. A shoebox theatre catered to the adult audience, seated eighty to 200, usually on one floor, and was shaped like a rectangular shoebox…. It was a very egalitarian form of entertainment that attracted all sorts — kids cutting school, people on dates, inner-city people escaping the cold or heat. The biggest hits cost five dollars.

By all account it was a magical period, and this documentary does a wonderful job of highlighting it. Filled with anecdotes from famous attendees (Stewart Lee, Adam Buxton, Matt Johnston, Jah Wobble, Barry Adamson) and staff, Scala!!! rightfully places the cinema as being somewhere in-between grindhouse and art house (quite a feat) and also being a centre for radical action (due to the various benefits for the miners’ strike and gay rights).

Quite a few humourous tales from the staff involving dead bodies, dislocated arms and LSD give the viewer a hearty chuckle and make them a tad jealous that they did not experience such events! But there are moments of solemness, making you realise that hosting an assortment of misfits and weirdos may seem like fun, but the more ‘on edge’ characters can make life a misery for you.

One area that is hinted at, but not discussed, is the gentrification of Kings Cross. Starting in the early 90’s, the drug dealers and sex workers were pushed out as construction for the Eurostar began (although it is worth noting that violence in the area had increased as well). Around this time, a secret screening of A Clockwork Orange (banned in Britain since 1974). A court case ensued and this, combined with the end of the lease, spelled the end of the cinema. It is hinted at that the cinema had riled the establishment, but this seems like wish fulfilment thinking especially when the above is taken into consideration.

Nonetheless, this not just an excellent look at a long-lost part of London night life but also a reminder of the power that cinema still has.

 

⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.

2 comments:

  1. I wonder if this was the cinema Mark Renton visits when he's in London and meets an older Italian man.

    Good piece, and looks like an interesting film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Brandon,

      I can see why you would think that as the description isn't a million miles away from what the Scala was. However, I checked the book and Renton says that it's in Victoria (a 20 minute tube ride from Kings Cross).

      Delete