Lost London – The Scala Cinema

Although these days it is possible to see almost any film in the comfort of your own home, the experience is very different to watching a movie on the big screen. A lot of my favourite flicks – movies starring the likes of Bruce Lee and Jimmy Wang Yu – were shot with the assumption that viewers would be metaphorically knocked dead by the wide-screen scale of the action. That doesn’t happen on a computer or TV screen – and not even in the small auditoriums of multiplex cinemas. Home viewing also lacks the social aspects of movie theatres – for example, cheering and laughing along with fight scenes. Although in the seventies and eighties I went to cinemas all over London, I ended up spending more time at The Scala in Kings X than anywhere else.
I actually started going to The Scala when it was in Tottenham Street but my memories of it’s first two years of existence (1979-81) in Fitzrovia are a little dim. I do recall being really knocked out when I saw Ministry of Fear there one afternoon – I think on a double-bill with The Third Man. I recently watched Ministry Of Fear again and was rather disappointed by it, since this Fritz Lang feature didn’t live up to my 30 plus year old memories of it. That said, I’ve had worse reactions to watching films at home that I’d enjoyed when I last saw them at the cinema decades earlier. Ministry Of Fear wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t nearly as good as my recollections of it.
The Scala on Tottenham Street was perfectly placed for those of us on the punk rock trail between Soho and Camden. Walking distance away to the south there was the 100 Club, Marquee, Notre Dame Hall and Rock On Record Stall; and in the other direction were venues like The Music Machine and Electric Ballroom – as well as Compendium Books. But at that time there were still a lot of cinemas around central London, so The Scala didn’t seem too special.
As we went into the eighties a lot of both repertory and first run cinemas disappeared from the face of London. As a result, The Scala – which had relocated to Kings X in 1981 – came to seem a lot more like a lone London beacon for lovers of midnight movies. Aside from having better flicks than anywhere else, The Scala must have been the dirtiest and most run down fleapit in The Smoke – and therefore it had way more character than places like The Everyman. The Scala also had ultra-cheap daytime multi-bill screenings with concessions (for the unemployed and pensioners) – and I was merely one of a crew of dole scum who seemed to spend more weekly daylight hours in this particular fleapit than out on the street or looking for work.
One of the things that particularly sticks in my mind from the earlier part of the eighties are the all night screenings – particularly stuff such as all night beat generation movies, which was where I first encountered flicks like Beat Girl and Bucket Of Blood. Around this time there were also free preview screenings for The Worst of Hollywood TV series (a Friday late-night slot on UK Channel 4 shown towards the end of 1983). As anyone who went to those free screenings can tell you, they’d do filmed introductions for several flicks before showing them. The audience were there to applaud and laugh at Michael Medved running down various grade Z movies – and we got commands from the film crew about how to react to him. Despite doing free screenings for all the films in the series (3 per day as far as I recall), the TV people used the same piece of stock footage of me in the audience on each of their weekly broadcasts. The films themselves – Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wild Women of Wongo, Robot Monster etc. – found a new life and a new audience, and went on to be recycled on more recent TV reruns such as Mystery Theatre 3000.
After a while The Scala became a home from home for many, and the regulars had their favourite seats. I always took the one immediately in front of Kim Newman (who I didn’t actually ever get to know until years after The Scala closed). Other things I suppose I should mention include the famous Scala cat – who’d walk over the seats and across the front of the screen – and the rumble of trains going under Kings X. Ditto the fact that there were lots of broken seats.
in the early and mid-eighties The Scala seemed good at building new films. They’d put movies without a ready-made audience on a multi-bill with established cult favourites. To give an example, I don’t remember what Liquid Sky was showing with the first time I saw it at The Scala, but I was mesmerised and didn’t know if it was really great or totally shit – so I went back to see it again and decided it was great.I must have seen Liquid Sky at least half a dozen times at The Scala during the eighties. The Scala was also a good place to see multi-bills of John Waters or Russ Meyer flicks; although it wasn’t where I first encountered films by either of these directors, it was one of the few places I could see their movies regularly. Thundercrack was another of my Scala favourites, alongside the more obvious art house choices like the I Am Curious movies and WR Mysteries of the Organism (which I still love). The Scala also had some less tasteful multi-bill choices – such as the regular Nazi exploitation triple of The Night Porter (a massively over-rated piece of shit), Salon Kitty and Red Nights of the Gestapo.
Later The Scala seemed to lose its way and failed to build up new to their audience (but not necessarily recent) films. I guess the cinema’s founder Stephen Woolley was concentrating on making a go of his film production company Palace Pictures. I brought Decoder to the UK for the first time in 1989 and screened it in Glasgow as part of the Festival of Plagiarism I organised there, and also arranged to show it at The Scala a couple of days later. I remember getting dropped off by a friend outside the cinema (he’d brought me back from Scotland in his car) and the queue for the screening stretched back to the main Kings X station. It was an amazingly large audience – some of whom I guess had to be turned away.
Colour was important to Decoder and you didn’t really get it’s full celluloid effect on the videos that had circulated in rather limited circles in the UK until then. I don’t remember the exact deal, but The Scala basically insisted that Tom Vague (who came in on the promotion of London screening of the film with me) and I take all the financial risks; then when they saw the audience and money coming through the door for Decoder, suddenly discovered loads of extra expenses so they could keep nearly all the dosh. I presume they wouldn’t have insisted we four-wall it if they’d realised we had a sell out, so they could have made their cash grab look like less of a rip-off – which in the end included things like alleged bottles of whisky for members of staff.
I got the impression that by the end of the eighties the Scala management had become absolutely shameless about doing anything for money because Palace Pictures was a financial black hole. After seeing the crowd Decoder pulled, The Scala started screening it themselves as part of their programme… but earlier in the eighties I think they’d have realised it was a film worth showing without someone coming in from outside. I don’t know or don’t remember how they started screening all the Hong Kong action movies they showed later on (and which I enjoyed seeing at The Scala a great deal), but I assume it was someone coming in from outside and wanting to do it that kick-started those John Woo/Chow Yun Fat etc. screenings.
I was sorry The Scala closed but by the time disappeared in 1993 it wasn’t the institution it had once been. I think it was Palace Pictures – as much as the court case over an illegal screenings of Clockwork Orange – that killed the place. The Scala had been showing that Kubrick film for years under titles like Mechanical Fruit, but I never liked it much as a movie (or a book) and  avoided those screenings. The closest we’ve got now to The Scala is the Prince Charles but that’s more a second run place, and the excellent monthly BFI Flipside screenings (but that’s a much cleaner environment).
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Bilko on 2011-12-18 18:57:09 +0000

Good times indeed.

Comment by Mark on 2011-12-18 19:55:58 +0000

Many was the happy night I’d sit watching Warhol with a 4-pack…

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-18 20:24:41 +0000

I remember seeing Chelsea Girls there a number of times – and Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein double-billed repeatedly too… but can’t recall much else in the Warhol line in Kings X… Did they ever show any of the early silent movies for example at The Scala? Other stuff I saw a lot at The Scala not mentioned above would include Mad Max, Shaft, Superfly and Cleopatra Jones…..

Comment by Alistair on 2011-12-18 20:35:02 +0000

I had office space in there when it was in transition from cinema to venue and managed to get a row of 4 chairs when they ripped them out, which I did not hang on to (stupidly). You could go onto the roof via the projection booth and the view over London was spectacular. There were still various film can and strips knocking about when I was there, didn’t bother to get any of those but I wish I’d kept the chairs.

Comment by Brian on 2011-12-18 23:14:24 +0000

Just had a nostalgic chat with someone about The Scala the other night. I used to go there every few weeks in its last few years. As well as showing an amazing range of underground movies it had a good cheap cafe. Handy for those long days/evenings/nights there.

Comment by Wicked Dog on 2011-12-19 01:02:56 +0000

I used to live at 10, Tottenham St opposite the original Scala in the early 60’s. It showed dirty movies then as I recall

Comment by Dr Freudenstein on 2011-12-19 09:37:06 +0000

You didn’t mention the likes of Cafe Flesh that was frequently shown at The Scala. But aside from more arty hardcore porn, don’t forget they would also sometimes show ordinary wank films like Deep Thoat. Why not deal with that? We need a lot more populist porno for the masses!

Comment by MTM on 2011-12-19 10:11:31 +0000

I thought I was gonna cheer up a bit reading your blog and it made me more depressed to read how many good things I’ve been missing for coming too late (1995) to live here (not that I got regrets all what I did/saw in Spain instead) But who wouldn’t like to have their own favourite seat in a cinema? And all those film bills and wait… Did you say there was a cat too…? Wow… You really make it feel like Home!

Comment by Fred The Shred on 2011-12-19 14:10:51 +0000

Forget The Scala in London and try La Scala in Milan! No point doing buisness entertainment at a cineam – it’s way too cheap and hardly knocks anything off your tax. Much better to fly your family and friends – erm, I mean clients – out to Italy and make a really expensive weekend of it; and all at the expense of pension fund investors and other ordinary tax paying folk! Fuck the the poor in the gall bladder the Goodwin way with a Night At The Opera!

Comment by Absolute Beginner on 2011-12-19 14:39:36 +0000

country south australia meant drive ins but we still got to see a lot of b-grade trash and there were always horrorthons on… not as exciting perhaps as there but easier to smuggle booze in thats fer sure

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-19 15:33:39 +0000

That sounds fun! I’ve never been to a drive in but then they don’t have them around London!

Comment by Dr. Goldfoot on 2011-12-19 16:39:44 +0000

we used to have a cinema here in Melbourne called the Valhalla. Midnight screenings were so exciting for a 15 year old! I remember when VIDEODROME came out (it got a one week run in mainstream cinema) I was able to see it at one of those late sessions, we just asked old hipsters to buy our tickets for us, no one asked for ID. They had couches down the back where people could smoke joints.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-19 22:03:46 +0000

I actually saw Videodrome a whole lot of times at The Scala in London…. by far and away Chronenberg’s best film…..

Comment by Absolute Beginner on 2011-12-19 23:31:28 +0000

never been to a drive in?? i feel sad for you… but then youve done a shitload i’ll never do but no drive in… yr teen years were wasted 😀

Comment by MTM on 2011-12-19 23:44:47 +0000

And of course unfortunately I never saw The Worst of Hollywood TV series… But I did see all the Exploitica series (Saturday late- night also on Channel 4) I still got them on VHS tapes… They really made me laugh! Does anyone remember? http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/series/35254

Comment by Barry Norman on 2011-12-20 10:01:40 +0000

I haven’t been to The Scala since it closed.

Comment by Julie Newmar on 2011-12-20 16:54:00 +0000

I want to know more about the ‘famous” Scala cat.

Comment by J. Arthur Rank on 2011-12-20 23:59:20 +0000

A single cinema! If you ain’t got a cinema chain you’re pathetic!

Comment by Old Fart on 2011-12-21 01:56:08 +0000

Bring back broken cinema seats!

Comment by Celluloid KId on 2011-12-21 10:45:08 +0000

Roll out the Imax screens!

Comment by Halle Berry on 2011-12-21 11:41:40 +0000

@ Julie Newmar
I would also like to know about the ‘famous’ Scala cat.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-21 16:10:19 +0000

It lived in the cinema and would wander around during screenings. I guess they had a problem with mice……

Comment by Michael Roth on 2011-12-25 21:35:54 +0000

I’ve been to The Scala many times since it closed. A much better atmosphere than when it was open, that’s for sure!

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-25 21:40:51 +0000

Spooky but let’s go and see some Scala ghost movies together some time!

Comment by Stuart on 2011-12-27 13:11:28 +0000

I spent quite a bit of time there in the mid- eighties to early nineties. It had an internal redecoration from a vaguely faded and dusty jungle/tropical colour scheme to a trendy graffiti/cartoon style in the late 80s from a temporary famous pair of graffiti style artists. In fact, their repainting of the Scala was featured on the ‘South of Watford’ documentary. (I think they were called the Urbanites?And one of them might have been called Wigan?).
It did feel like it kind of had its own entrance from Kings Cross, as the Thameslink (?) exit brought you out very close by and across the busy interchange from the main Kings Cross station.
I only went to one all-nighter: Flesh, Trash, Heat, Blood for Dracula, and Flesh for Frankenstein.
Plenty of great double or treble bills: The Trip/Monkees Head, Kenneth Angers Magick Lantern Cycle, Thundercrack/Lonesome Cowboys, Last Tango in Paris (poor)/Je t’aime (good).

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-27 15:14:42 +0000

I remember the faded tropical colour scheme well… I’ve a complete blank on the repaint…. I’ve seen all the movies you mention… although maybe not at the Scala… I remember seeing Head and The Trip there often (although sometimes triple billed I thnk – but with what?)….

Comment by Stuart on 2011-12-27 19:41:16 +0000

They were tripled with PsychOut, I think- not a very good film and a laughable Jack Nicholson role.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-27 22:06:17 +0000

I’ve seen Psycho Out so you’re probably right… But now I’m also wondering if I’ve seen The Trip and Head tripled with Wild In The Streets or could it be Gas.S.S.S? Of course they could have been triple billed with all three at various times… or I may have seen these films together elsewhere. Would be great to have access to all the old Scala programmes which would resolve all this stuff for me!

Comment by Stuart on 2011-12-27 22:51:34 +0000

Unfortunately I threw out my Scala programmes/fold out poster, including a great one for a Divine season with a collage of Divine hailing a taxi and saying “Driver – The Sclaa and step on it!”.
But I did track down my list of scala visits (aspergers style – this tells me i made 51 separate vistis between 23/1/84 (Thundercrack!/Lonesome Cowboys) and 27/7/91 (The Trip/Head/Blue Sunshine).
Some great double/triple bills, including:
8.4.84 Pandoras Box/ Blue Angel
9.4.84 Cherry, Harry and Raquel/Vixen/Up
14.4.84 The Trip/Liquid Sky
9.5.84 Un Chant D’Amour/Scorpio Rising/Querelle
3.6.84 Streetcar Named Desire/Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
10.10.84 Beauty and the Beast/Orphee
2.5.85 Stranger on the Third Floor/Gilda/Citizen Kane
4.4.85 The Hit/Performance
16.7.85 Bladerunner/Trancers
19.7.85 Head/Wonderwall/The Trip
7.8.85 WR Mysteries of the Organism/Montenegro
18.8.85 Mammals/Two Men and a Wardrobe/The Tenant
9.9.85 Ai NO Corrida/Onibaba
27.8.86 Truckstop Women/Caged Heat
28.10.86 Spetters/The Fourth Man
14.11.86 The Devils/Don’t Look Now/Performance
28.11.86 Bad Timing/Crimes of Passion
8.1.87 The Nanny/The Anniversary
13.1.87 Chinatown/Still of the Night/Carnal Knowledge
27.2.87 Suddenly Last Summer/A Place in the Sun/Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
12.3.87 The Boys in the Band/Parting Glances
13.11.87,976 Dish/Beauties without a Cause/Pink Narcissus/Ciao Manhattan
18.3.88 Eraserhead/The Element of Crime
9.7.88 Female Trouble/Desperate Living
27.3.89 City of lost Souls/Taxi Zum Klo
Pretty sure David Lynches ‘The Grandmother played fairly regularly as an extra with Eraserhead and the Elephant Man…I always wanted to see Quiet Days in Clichy but missed it…ditto some film set in a post – nuclear explosion where people could no longer have sex, but had to watch it instead (can’t remember the title)
Finally, the only real turkeys that I saw there:
11.8.84 Showboat 1988/Emerald City
11.6.84 Swept Away/Seven Beauties (I’d read that one of those films, can’t remember which, was a favourite of Genesis P Orridge.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-28 00:16:48 +0000

Wow, I don’t have my life logged like that! And interesting to note that I probably first saw Liquid Sky with The Trip! I’m sure I saw Mad Max a bunch of times at the Scala too… Oh and you’re thinking about Cafe Flesh when you say: “some film set in a post – nuclear explosion where people could no longer have sex, but had to watch it instead..” Amusing eighties trash but Quiet Days In Clichy is way better – one of my favourite anti-classics!

Comment by Steve on 2011-12-30 18:29:42 +0000

There are some pics from 1987 here:

Comment by mistertrippy on 2011-12-30 20:30:04 +0000

Groovy! But no wonder I blotted that redecoration of the upstairs lobby out of my mind – a horrible comix mess… I liked the faded greens of the old interior much more…. But the rest looks as I remember it, tatty but far-out!

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