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Highbrow art, bona fide cinema classics, and lowbrow trash

A brief history of the Scala Cinema by Chris O’Neill, Head of Cinema at Triskel

Reflecting back on the London cinema scene of the early 80s provokes a sense of nostalgia for any film fanatics who participated in it, and envious regret for those too young to have experienced it. In the home, there were only three terrestrial television channels. Video was in its infancy, the units were expensive and only a limited amount of product was available. To nourish a film education, you had to venture out and leave the confines of the living room. Most venues, particularly the half-dozen repertory cinemas in London at the time, were single screen operations that each had a distinctive flavour. But, of them all, it is the Scala Cinema that left the most lasting impression.

Highbrow art, bona fide cinema classics, and lowbrow trash meet, meld, and become equal in the arena of diversity that was the Scala Cinema. It encompassed all aspects of film. Taking an aggressively hip American style (inspired by the NuArt in Los Angeles and The Roxy in San Francisco), this egalitarian mentality stimulated the many future artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians who absorbed the dizzying variety of images screened. Older movies, many long out of circulation or officially unavailable, could be discovered on creative double bills or all-night shows, while the most daring contemporary directors (Cronenberg, Jarman, Lynch) cemented their reputations in the UK by finding an eager audience for their latest work there.

The Scala started out in the West End, on Tottenham Street, as The Other Cinema. A certain Steve Woolley insisted they restore the venue’s original name to the Scala (which in the 1920s was a private club that screened then-highly controversial work such as The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and Battleship Potemkin), but it continued to haemorrhage money. The frustrated 22 year old Woolley made a proposal to shareholders Virgin Records to turn things around. With an injection of cash to make the bar nicer and get “probably the best jukebox in London”, Woolley, with support from fellow programmer Jayne Pilling, relaunched the Scala in June 1979. It now boasted a new monthly programme “that reflected almost every aspect of cinema”: 50s sci-fi movies, Clint Eastwood marathons, animation festivals, John Waters double bills, and Judy Garland all-nighters. But, after two years, just as the cinema began to make a profit, the building was sold off. Undeterred, the operation relocated to what was once the King’s Cross Cinema on Pentonville Road and it is here that the Scala really came into its own.

By the mid-eighties Woolley had started producing films and so handed over programming duties to JoAnne Sellar and Mark Vallen, who kept the basic formula while expanding on screenings in their personal areas of interest, blood horror and queer cinema respectively. Scala shows were an alternative night out in London with such events as “All Night Gay Movie Marathon” (featuring regulars Querelle, Taxi Zum Klo and, of course, Thundercrack! which only ever played at the Scala), “Punk/70s Nostalgia” (including The Great Rock and Rock Swindle and then-recently outlawed video nasty The Driller Killer) and “Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back To The Scala…” (an incredible all day/all night horror festival with such genre favourites as The Thing, The Exorcist, Friday The 13th and many more).

When Sellar went into film production and Vallen moved back to America, Jane Giles took over in 1988 and upped the ante by focusing even more on niche sexy/horror/unclassifiable programming. Regular favourites such as Salo and Russ Meyer triple bills played alongside Dario Argento all-nighters, experimental shorts by Brakhage and Burroughs, and Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, which was shown uncut without a distributor for a year before being picked up and released in a censored form. Regular events such as Shock Around The Clock (Jörg Buttgereit presenting Nekromantik) and Psychotronic Films (Cat-Women of the Moon in 3D) each proved popular, while Eastern Heroes presented kung fu and John Woo to a raucous full house of Asian cinema fans.

In 1992 A Clockwork Orange was screened audaciously under surreptitious circumstances, since its own director, Stanley Kubrick, had suppressed the film in Britain. A 35mm print was supplied by a private collector and was referenced in the programme only by hints and never by name (“a clockwork surprise”, “orange day”, etc). Someone informed Warner Brothers that the unauthorised screening took place, the Federation Of Copyright Theft (FACT) took legal action and a year-long court case ensued.

The Scala survived the legal ramifications of the court case, but there were other external factors at play: a recession hit people hard while changes in licensing laws meant that the venue was no longer one of the few places in London to get a late-night drink. On the home video front there were  companies releasing exactly the kind of product that the Scala specialised in. Film prints were becoming scarce, and the current programmer Helen De Witt (who had taken over from Giles just before the Clockwork fiasco occurred) found it increasingly difficult to pull together an ever-changing repertory schedule. The final straw was the rent increases in the decreasingly popular King’s Cross area. “Better to get out now, so the Scala becomes a legend, then to see it become a shadow of its former self” decided Woolley, and the cinema screened its final film on 7th June 1993.

One endearing aspect of the Scala is that it rarely made money, since its ratio of hits and misses balanced out. But Woolley and all the subsequent programmers possessed an enthusiasm for cinema and a desire to share their knowledge of it with others. An ever-changing programme and the creativity of double bill pairings meant that punters could see a variety of acknowledged films along with the otherwise unseen and probably unheard-of. While home entertainment technology has increased the accessibility of oddball and obscure films, what is being lost is the experience of viewing them as part of an audience.

Scala!!! is showing at Triskel Cinema from Sunday 14 – Wednesday 17 January. Buy your tickets now!