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!