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London’s cult cinema: Celebrating the Scala

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London’s influential, inspirational Scala cinema is the subject of ‘Scala Cinema 1978-1993’, a new book by Jane Giles. The former Scala programmer and Time Out journalist shares her memories of the storied old picture palace

London was scary in the 1970s, especially if you grew up in an out-of-town family like mine. The capital’s crowds seemed hellish, the transport system was terrifying and the litter bins were prone to randomly exploding. Then again, it was the only place where people didn’t give me aggro for wearing gold snakeskin trousers or a hat, so it was worth the risk. A little gang of us would take the train to Victoria, walk down the King’s Road to peer into Vivienne Westwood’s shop, then on to Kensington Market to seek out red eyeshadow, cheap gothy fetish wear and Crazy Color hair dye. We’d invest 50p in a copy of Time Out and plan well in advance. At night, we went to see gigs like The Cramps at The Lyceum or travelled to the Scala cinema for its Saturday all-nighters. I remember one epic 1981 quintuple bill of ‘Halloween’, ‘Martin’, ‘The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue’, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ and ‘Psychic Killer’.

A packed Scala screen waits for 1980s Avengers Convention to get underway

Little did I know then that I’d end up moving to London to run the Scala – and would end up writing a book about the place. Researching it, I discovered that the Scala theatre, then situated on Charlotte Street, was the first to show colour film in 1912, and that just after World War II it was home to the New London Film Society, a precursor to the National Film Theatre. The book is an encyclopedia, an archaeological expedition which turned up centuries of both treasure and trash, led down rabbit holes and lost highways, through trapdoors and across voids. Writing it, I felt like Alice in Wonderland in a story directed by David Lynch. My mission was to gather a complete collection of every Scala programme from 1978-1993 and match them to a wider history of those turbulent times, including the changing face of King’s Cross. I wanted to shine a spotlight on the Scala’s unsung heroines, such as 19-year-old programmer JoAnne Sellar, who fought the ‘video nasties’ ban in 1983-1984 and went on to produce the films of Paul Thomas Anderson in Hollywood.

One of the biggest surprises was discovering the BFI’s failed attempt to buy the Scala theatre site in 1974. If successful, there would have been no Scala (the BFI had intended to use the building as its London HQ). It was actually set up by Stephen Woolley in 1978, inspired by his experiences working at the Screen on the Green with its late-night double-bills, and mostly by the post-punk exoticism of American calendar house programmes. With the arrival of the new Channel 4’s TV offices, the Scala moved from its basement in Tottenham Street near Goodge Street station to an incredible 1920s picture palace in King’s Cross. Some sniffed that the old Scala was better. Some still do, if recent comments in The Guardian are anything to go by. But for me, the atmospheric Scala was a haven for misfits and film freaks, with its daily-changing programme of classics, cult movies, horror, kung fu, LGBT+ films and experimental stuff. And it had resident cats: Warren, Roy and Huston.

The Scala’s projectionist Billy Bell at work 

The Scala was also big on music. Across one single weekend in July 1972, both Lou Reed and Iggy Pop played at the King’s Cross Cinema, and the photographs taken onstage by Mick Rock would become the iconic album covers of ‘Transformer’ and ‘Raw Power’. I discovered that in the Scala audience were musicians-turned-filmmakers such as Viv Albertine, Douglas Hart and Nick Cave. And there were students who would become visionary directors: Peter Strickland, Ben Wheatley, Joe Cornish, James Marsh, Andy Nyman, Martin McDonagh (who won a Scala caption competition in 1992) and Christopher Nolan, who still carries his last membership card in his wallet.

We knew that the Scala audience came from all over the country. In fact, years later only a third of the book’s crowdfunders had a London address. The book is enormous, something of a Victorian folly in the scale of its ambition to combine a pictorial record with a deep history and an index of every film that ever showed at the Scala. A million people have passed through the doors of the cinema, every one of whom will have their own stories and remember it in a different way. Its influence on film culture can’t be refuted.

‘Scala Cinema 1978-1993’ by Jane Giles is available for pre-order now at FabPress.com. Tickets for the launch party on Wed Sep 26 are available via DICE.

Jane Giles is taking part in a Q&A and Scalarama double-bill screening of LGBT+ classics ‘Scorpio Rising’ and ‘Pink Narcissus’ at Curzon Soho on Sun Sep 30. To book tickets visit Scalarama.com.

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