Spank The Monkey introduces the Scala Forever season by looking back at the history of one of London’s most-beloved fleapits
Screw Proust and his madeleines: that picture there takes me back a quarter of a century, and it doesn’t require a tea chaser in order to do it. Twenty-five years ago, I virtually lived at the Scala cinema in King’s Cross, and eagerly awaited the monthly arrival of a programme flyer very much like the one shown above.
The Scala was possibly the greatest of London’s repertory houses, back in the days when the capital had around a dozen of them. As the London-wide festival Scala Forever commemorates the opening of the cinema thirty years ago, I’ve been looking back fondly at the time I spent there watching all the underground greats. Russ Meyer. John Waters. Herschell Gordon Lewis. Jörg Buttgereit. Tsui Hark.
So it annoys me a little to be reminded that the first film I saw there was Garry Marshall’s The Flamingo Kid.
Everyone remembers the Scala as being the closest thing London has ever had to an American-style grindhouse cinema (sorry, Prince Charles, you’re just too tasteful to cut it). Few people remember that it was a part of the Palace Pictures empire, which dealt in both theatrical and home distribution, and even for a few years included a rather good video store on Berwick Street called The Video Palace. Whenever Palace had a film they wanted to road test before they sent it out into the world, they’d play it to a Scala audience first, and make everyone fill in forms at the end to say what they liked or didn’t, so they could build the marketing campaign around what ordinary people thought. Which, of course, assumes that a Scala audience had ordinary people in it.
That was how I first came to the Scala in 1985, by which time it had been in its Pentonville Road premises for about four years. As was the case with all the rep cinemas at the time, the Scala specialised in double bills, frequently pairing something relatively new with an earlier film by the same people, or one with a more tenuous connection. So my first double bill contained a preview of The Flamingo Kid, of which I remember precisely nothing. But it also contained Matt Dillon’s earlier appearance in Rumble Fish, which was much better.
I’d lived in London for a year by then, and I knew a good cinema when I saw one: I’d marvelled at the state-of-the-art facilities of the Empire, the gargantuan screen of the Odeon Marble Arch, the opulent seating of the Barbican. By comparison, the Scala was a shithole. It was grubby: the seats were falling apart, the toilets were a disgrace, and the lobby was still covered in berserk jungle murals from the building’s former life as a Primatarium. (Don’t ask.) The sound was rough: by the end, it must have been the only cinema left in central London without Dolby, mainly because there was no way they could balance a complex sound system against the Sensurround rumble of the Victoria Line tube trains that passed directly under the auditorium. And I believe that at the time it was the only London cinema that allowed you to take drink inside, so every ten seconds you’d be distracted by a ‘pssst’ sound as another audience member opened a can of Red Stripe.
But I’d paid my 50p annual membership, so I had to go back.
That nominal membership fee was key to the way in which the Scala operated. For one thing, it turned the audience into a community, an army of film lovers who you gradually got to recognise by sight as you visited more often. But it also allowed the cinema to operate under club conditions, meaning that they could show uncertificated films. As long as they didn’t break the Obscene Publications Act or carelessly breach someone’s copyright, they could show anything. And they did.
Rummaging through my diaries of the time, it would appear that between 1985 and 1993 I visited the Scala over 80 times. In the early days, my choices were solid and respectable: but towards the end of 1985, I suddenly and spectacularly went off the rails. John Waters’ Polyester was (by his standards) a respectable production with an 18 certificate, and the Scala happily showed it in all its Odorama scratch ‘n’ sniff glory. But they backed it up with Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack!, two and a half hours of hardcore filth in which men, women, a large-testicled gorilla and a cucumber got together in every possible sexual permutation. You know when Eric Cartman says about Asses Of Fire “that movie has warped my fragile little mind”? That was me after Thundercrack!
Traditionally, Monday night was Filth Night at the Scala: double and triple bills of arty porn, Waters-style trash, and the ironic delights of Russ Meyer. I was one of the people in the audience for Meyer’s films looking past the tits and marvelling at how well-made they were. (This was the eighties, it was how you justified watching this stuff to yourself.) But other genres were represented too. The Scala was where I developed my ongoing love of Hong Kong action cinema, from the Shaw Brothers chopsocky classics to the bulletfests of John Woo in his prime. I fondly remember the first time I saw The Killer there, watching an audience more or less give a standing ovation to Chow Yun-Fat’s first close-up in the film, and realising there was one more subculture I hadn’t been aware of till now.
The Scala was the place to go if you were looking to spend several consecutive hours in a badly-constructed cinema seat. The all-nighters were the stuff of legend, though sadly I only ever made it to one (a fairly tame bundling of Blade Runner and the Mad Max trilogy). But the all-dayers were pretty splendid too. Typically, they were organised by fanzine editors who wanted to spend a whole day showing their favourite films to a few mates. So Rick Baker of Eastern Heroes put a dazzling array of Hong Kong movies on the big screen, and then sold you VHS copies of questionable provenance in the foyer afterwards. Meanwhile, the good people at Film Extremes gleefully hopped from genre to genre within their programmes, seeing no problem pairing off a goofy kung fu comedy like Nocturnal Demon with an intense piece of German unpleasantness like Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik 2, a film I still hold as a personal benchmark of Going Too Far in the movies. (Read the Wikipedia synopsis if you don’t believe me.)
But it wasn’t just about the freedom to show anything (Obscene Publications Act and copyright notwithstanding): the Scala was a place for people who loved movies, and relished the chance to see them with an audience. The programming was playful, putting together both classics and kitsch in ways that were sometimes obvious, sometimes unexpected. In 1987, for example, they ran a preview of Evil Dead 2 alongside some silent Felix The Cat cartoons, as a tribute to the cinema’s recently deceased kitty (its favourite film was Evil Dead, apparently). The Felix cartoons were musically accompanied by the Miles Davis album Tutu that happened to be on the cinema PA at the time: the result worked so well, I’ve spent several years on YouTube trying to recreate the effect under the pseudonym The Felix Project. But I digress.
Between 1981 and 1993, there was a whole community of people like me in London: people who travelled out to the badlands of King’s Cross after dark to see films that you frequently couldn’t see anywhere else. We laughed, we cried, we screamed, we cheered, some of us may even have played with ourselves given the sort of thing they showed on Monday nights. We were fans of cinema, revelling in the best and worst of what the medium had to offer. And then Stanley Kubrick kicked us all in the yarbles.
Surprise screenings were part of the fun at the Scala: they’d give you a vague clue in the programme notes, and assume enough people would get the reference to justify them turning the projector on. So, a really obscure Herschell Gordon Lewis b-picture would be paired with what they just called ‘a gore surprise’, and you’d assume that it would be one of the director’s more famous efforts getting a rare outing in public after its branding as a video nasty. (Two Thousand Maniacs, since you ask.) That was all well and good: but when the Scala announced that one weekday afternoon in 1992 they’d have ‘a timely and fruitful surprise’, I did find myself wondering if this was a surprise that would have nasty consequences. And I turned out to be right, unfortunately.
As any fule kno, A Clockwork Orange wasn’t banned in this country: it was withdrawn, at the request of Stanley Kubrick, after reported incidents of copycat violence allegedly escalated into death threats on the director himself. So it wasn’t the Obscene Publications Act that brought the Scala down when they imported a print into the UK for a one-off screening: it was copyright. Kubrick and Warner Brothers took the Scala to court for a battle they had no chance of financing, let alone winning. Fundraising efforts were made (including the t-shirt pictured above), but they all came to nothing: the Scala went into liquidation, and closed its doors in 1993.
I wasn’t there for the Scala’s final day. I still can’t quite remember why. Maybe I held out some faint hope that it wasn’t really the end. Or maybe I simply couldn’t get a ticket – because its final weekend event was one last Hong Kong blowout from the Eastern Heroes crew, who’d pulled off the jaw-dropping coup of getting Chow Yun-Fat over for a personal appearance. Whatever the reason, the Scala remained boarded up until 1999, when it reopened as a music venue and has stayed that way ever since. I see the odd band there now and again: the auditorium has been completely gutted and is now unrecognisable, but as you wander through the foyer and stairwells you can’t help but feel the odd twinge of nostalgia.
Could the Scala have survived if the lawsuit hadn’t happened? I suspect not. One by one (barring the odd exception like the National Film Theatre), the rep cinemas of London either closed down or changed over to traditional weekly programming, theoretically becoming redundant as home video became more and more prevalent. Certainly, many of the Russ Meyer and Hong Kong films I saw at the Scala are now sitting on my DVD shelves within easy reach. But I think the demise of the repertory cinema has changed the way I watch films, and not for the better. When you could only see Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! at the Scala, I made a point of going there at least once a year to catch it. I now own 18 Russ Meyer movies on DVD, all purchased when they were released as a collection shortly after his death in 2004, and I’ve barely watched them since then. What’s all that about?
I suspect that it’s down to the way that, no matter how many times we do it, we still deep down see a night out at the movies as an event. It doesn’t have to be glitzy, or even hygienic, or even watchable: going out there and sharing the experience with people who feel the same way is what it’s all about. And some of the best experiences I’ve had in a cinema were in that room in Pentonville Road. For reasons best known to themselves, the Scala itself isn’t participating in the Scala Forever festival – but a couple of dozen venues across London are, and they’re all, like me, keen to recreate that thrill of seeing something you didn’t expect. This time round, the toilets may be better, and the sound might be audible. But it’s the attitude that’ll stay the same.
Scala Forever (http://www.scalaforever.co.uk) runs from August 13th to October 2nd in multiple London locations. See website for full programme.
Spank The Monkey (http://www.spank-the-monkey.co.uk) continues to maintain his own Primatarium in cyberspace.