A common refrain: Barbie and Oppenheimer saved movie theatres in 2023. Greta Gerwig’s advertorial for Mattel has raked in over $1.4bn globally, while Christopher Nolan’s thriller about the US physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” is approaching the billion-dollar mark. Surely this is worthy of huzzahs? After all, what with streaming, the pandemic and, most recently, the actors’ and writers’ strike, cinema chains have been under the cosh. Still, nothing has made me more excited about film and filmgoing than Scala!!!, a modestly funded (and immodestly exclamation-marked) documentary about a venue in London that was shuttered over 30 years ago.
Formed in 1978 in Fitzrovia, the Scala moved three years later to King’s Cross, at that time a where-angels-fear-to-tread neighbourhood which was a magnet for junkies, prostitutes and criminals. Egged on by manager Stephen Woolley (who would go on to produce British films such as Mona Lisa and Scandal), its programming exuded arthouse cool, the wired, insurgent energy of post-punk music, and the filthiness of American grindhouse. It was one of the few places where English audiences could see Pasolini’s Salò, midnight movies such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, cult TV (The Avengers, The Prisoner), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Waters’s notoriously scatological Pink Flamingos, and the experimental animation of Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Švankmajer.
These films and their makers are widely known these days. In the early 1980s, when cinema attendance in the UK was nearly at an all-time low, things were different. “It was a very analogue period,” recalls co-director and former Scala programmer Jane Giles. “If households had a Betamax or a VHS machine, it was usually hired from a local electronics store. There were only three TV channels. It was hard to find interesting things in the broader culture. The Scala provided an unofficial curriculum. It was like a cool big sister or big brother. It offered concessionary prices to students and to people on the dole. You never felt stupid going to see something. Whatever it was—Citizen Kane or La Dolce Vita or something trashy—everything was given the same importance.”
Perhaps this was postmodernism in practice. Perhaps it was a vision of arthouse cinema as a commons, a mixed public space, an alternative metropolis. It certainly attracted audiences from inside and outside London. Some went on to become internationally celebrated directors: Joanna Hogg, Steve McQueen, Danny Boyle, Gurinder Chadha, Mary Harron, Beeban Kidron (now a peer), even Christopher Nolan (who saw the hardcore film Thundercrack! there). The Scala drew the capital’s various tribes: goths, rockabillies, rockers, Blitz kids, earnest young men in long coats. The documentary’s interviewees—among them comedians (Stewart Lee and Adam Buxton), musicians (The The’s Matt Johnson and S’Express’s Mark Moore), writers (Cathi Unsworth)—talk about the place as a “refuge”, a “ secret castle”, a “Garden of Eden of innocence”.
Are they being sentimental? I suspect not. Co-director Ali Catterall started going there when he was just 16. “I had a very fucked-up childhood,” he tells me. “I was brought up in a cult-like hippy squat by an Aleister Crowley worshipper, a black magician, a warlock—and a radical feminist mother. It was Angela’s Ashes, lentil poverty, no hot water. When I got to the Scala, I was seeing the kinds of things I’d been living through. There were lots of weird, broken souls there. The Scala functioned as a home for us. A safe place to filter through fiction what we’d been living for real.”
We go to the cinema to watch films. We also go to watch other people. At the Scala, no matter how crazed the drama on screen, the liveliest action was happening between the aisles. John Waters took his drag-queen muse, Divine, on acid, to see Ingmar Bergman movies. One employee routinely scored “blues”—which is to say, a type of pill—from someone at the Iranian embassy, which he sold for a profit to audience members. There was an unlicensed late bar. A house cat. Homeless people would sleep through all-nighter screenings. Punters would have sex in the back row. The Pogues’s Shane MacGowan was once kicked out for urinating on the seat in front of him. The atmosphere could be heady, rave-like. It could be troubling too: in 1986, at a screening of A Clockwork Orange, a group of troublemakers in Droog garb brought a bulldog into the building, sat in the front row and started cheering during the rape scene.
Few cinemas these days are seen as political venues. Maybe that would tarnish their brands or make would-be filmgoers associate them with worthy didacticism rather than fun. The Scala, though, hosted a “Pits and Perverts” fundraiser for the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners alliance, as well as other events for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign Celebrates International Women’s Week, the London Campaign for the Birmingham Six and the capital’s Anti-Apartheid Group. Its staff were bolshy too: in 1988, its managers complained to the Pearl & Dean advertising company about ads for military recruitment being shown between films, while a projectionist, in an act of intricate sabotage, engraved a CND sign onto consecutive frames of the offending advert.
It was hard to find interesting things in the broader culture
Thatcherism was a cultural project as much as it was an economic one. During the 1980s, the Conservative prime minister criticised the permissive society, praised Victorian values and introduced Section 28—a series of laws that forbade the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. Depending on your point of view, the Scala was either part of the problem or the resistance. It staged (self-explanatory) “Blue Monday” bills. It frequently screened queer classics such as Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks and Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, as well as Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which the singer was played by Barbie dolls. Guest programmers included Square Peg (a “Journal for Contemporary Perverts”) and the lesbian erotic magazine Quim. Visits from the Obscene Publications Squad were commonplace; the cinema’s mostly young, female programmers had to fight tooth and nail to stop prints being confiscated.
The Scala closed in 1993. It had always been a lean operation (some of its staff supplemented their meagre wages with Nigerian arranged-marriage scams and pyramid selling rackets) and was struggling to cope with rising leases and a growing home video market. Its aesthetic had partly been absorbed by TV programmes such as Jonathan Ross’s The Incredibly Strange Film Show. The end came when Warner Bros took it to court for a showing of A Clockwork Orange (which had been withdrawn from distribution in the UK at Stanley Kubrick’s request).
Nowadays, A Clockwork Orange is available for streaming. Does that mean there’s no need for countercultural spaces like the Scala? “There are more films being made than ever before, but they have a shorter distribution life,” points out Catterall. “They come. They go. We all know the experience of sitting in front of Netflix: flick, flick, flick, flick, flick. An hour and a half has gone by and there’s nothing you actually want to see. You can have too much choice.”
Giles believes that the spirit of the Scala persists at modern-day film festivals where the mood is often carnivalesque and audiences can access lots of films not in wide circulation. She says, a touch wistfully, “The film is an attempt to excite young people about the idea of cinema.” What is the idea? For me: magic, mutation, togetherness.
“Scala!!!” is in cinemas on 5th January 2024, then on BFI Player and physical home media from 22nd January