Scala!!! (2023)

Directed by Ali Catterall and Jane Giles



Last night I attended a screening of the new documentary Scala!!! which tells the story of London’s Scala cinema from the 1960s to its closure in 1993.  Its most fondly remembered home was in a seedy King’s Cross long before its eventual gentrification.  I went twice in the late eighties.  Taxi Driver being part of a double bill that I fell asleep through.  And later a rare screening of The Terence Davies Trilogy.  No usher with their torch assisted me.  I stumbled through the thick darkness and groped to find a seat.  It was the darkest cinema I’ve ever experienced.  You felt you were falling into a black pit or ascending a misty mountain.  My seat was excruciatingly hard, rickety and smelt of cat pee.  It was damp and freezing cold.  I kept my overcoat on.  The projection was erratic and marihuana was in the air.  Those pungent memories were reconfirmed by those audience members interviewed in the film.  Discomfort was an integral part of the Scala cinema experience!

Scala!!! is an eclectic, highly nostalgic reminiscence of a cinema as a sociological phenomenon.  As one customer says, “A place for weirdos and misfits.”  A safe space for the gay community.  A venue for music gigs (Lou Reed did one, apparently it was awful).  A meeting spot for groups like the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society or martial art movie fanatics.  A home for the lonely to escape to.  A sanctuary for the dispossessed.  A niche for desperate cinephiles to discover cinematic rarities’.  And even a place for uninhibited expression – a frustrated man, before a screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, shouts out to the audience it’s a crap film and then reveals the ending.

Watching Scala!!! was a rough and smooth trip down memory lanes of the 1980s.  The Scala cinema was one of 5 London repertory cinemas; the NFT, The Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, Riverside Studios and The Everyman in Hampstead all more visited by me than Kings Cross’s epic flea-pit.  I probably went to them more than the Scala because they were warmer in mid February, the seats weren’t built of concrete and their auteur programming was more appealing (Scala!!!,s punk-energetic focus on its alternative audience meant no appreciable screen time was given to the film buffs who, as someone interviewed said, may have wished to see an Agnes Varda quadruple.  Yes, have that and early Antonioni and late Ozu squeezed in, a lot more, or for the first time, between the John Waters and Kenneth Anger nights).

To say their programming was weird would be an understatement.  Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom would be rolled over by Thunder Crack’s 1975 horror porn comedy then Laurel and Hardy came next with more sexploitation or schlock horror to follow.  Its rock ‘n’ roll and drugs audience came for the rocking movies and special sex in hidden quarters of the cinema.

Overall Scala!!! is a very entertaining, cleverly edited (Thatcherite disturbances abound) doc that just goes on a bit too long.  It’s as if the filmmakers were too high on their celebration that they didn’t want their film to ever end.  Ten minutes could have been dropped.  It should have finished with the cinema’s final film the thirties King Kong which was also the first film to have been screened at Kings Cross.

I wasn’t a big fan of the Scala cinema.  But I miss it.  Or should I say I miss a cinema environment that was wild, even transgressive.  And it stood next to The Bell, a welcoming all dance venue.  Patrons could rush from its dance floor into a house of movies from midnight to dawn.  With a few notable exceptions repertory cinemas, and there are far less of them now than in the 1980s, have become expensive, plush and bourgeois with sofas, dining tables, three course meals and mainstream movie fodder flipped between the most chic art-house stuff.

A film well worth seeing if you knew the Scala and are now probably in your mid fifties, sixties or seventies.  Will a much younger crowd appreciate Scala!!! or is it just for the unreconstructed, the nostalgics or converted Scala lifers?

Alan Price © 2023.