From the perspective of the connected world, it’s hard to conceive that only 30-odd years ago, the concept of ‘on-demand’ anything was pretty much non-existent, particularly when it came to film. No You Tube, no on-line streaming, no digital TV, and videos eked out at a glacial pace and at a price that, in today’s values, would be eye-watering. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the cult film buff had no option but to comb each week’s Radio and TV Times listings avidly, planning that week’s activities around what gems had slipped into the mid-afternoon and late night slots. Occasionally there would be sudden bursts of treasures – a midnight season throughout the Christmas holiday, or a series of pairings of Universal and Hammer horrors – but usually a film once shown would disappear back into the mystical archives. The arrival of home video machines in the early 80s made life easier – at least you could watch whatever was on at a time of your choosing (and add the tape to the rows filling the top of every cupboard), but there were so many cult movies that just never made it onto the TV screen, especially if they were controversial, exotic, weird or just plain bad.
And then there was the Scala. Unless you’ve lived the life of a cult movie fan, reading endless books about films you could only dream of being able to see, you’ll never really understand what the Scala meant to us. All the movies the TV wouldn’t or couldn’t show, plus lots that flitted intermittently across our screens, presented in endlessly varying combinations to lead us into new discoveries, all shared in an environment that was at the same time edgy and comforting, bringing geeks, freaks and cliques alike together in a love of the art of movie-making.
In truth, there were two Scalas, both on sites with a long heritage of London entertainment. It always operated more as a collective than a business, creating a sense of shared enterprise before anyone had invented the term. The first brief incarnation was in Charlotte Street, just around the corner from Goodge Street underground station, in a basement venue designed as an arts cinema. In 1981, redevelopment forced a move up to Kings Cross to a wonderfully decaying former theatre with towering auditorium and a warren of corridors that let mysteriously off up towards the cupola on the roof. The bigger venue offered the opportunity for more live cinema-related events, though my visits were inevitably focussed purely on the cinema of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
And what visits they were. I can’t begin to catalogue the Scala’s output (but that’s been done – see the end of the article). All I can do is reflect on my own visits, beginning with an introduction to the unique Saturday all-nighters with a programme of rock’n’roll movies at the Charlotte Street venue in November 1980, just months after I’d left school and started working full-time in London. I went in trepidation – all night events were a big step for an 18 year-old from the suburbs – but found myself amongst friends, including the incomparable Stewart ‘Prof’ Rhodes who proved beyond doubt his credentials as a true rock’n’roll devotee by quoting the (utterly dire) dialogue from ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’ one line ahead of the (utterly dire) actors on screen. More all-nighters followed, as the Scala represented a safe haven if heading back from a gig or party too late to catch the last train home, and I watched or dozed through feasts of Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks films. Saturday afternoons made for more concentrated viewing, with programmes often blending full-length movies with shorts and cartoons. And so my diary records days spent immersed in 1940s jazz shorts, Warner Brothers animation festivals, 30s gangster movies, and 50s Sci-Fi presented in authentic 50s 3D, complete with cardboard red and green glasses, with exploding planets appearing to scatter rocks out of the screen and into the pit. It wasn’t all cinema, either, with afternoons dedicated to 60s TV, from Thunderbirds, through the brilliant colour of Diana Rigg era Avengers, to original adverts.
An annual special event was the Golden Turkey Awards, dedicated to the worst of film-making, with annual outings for such classics as ‘The Wild Women of Wongo’, ‘Monster on the Campus’, and anything and everything by Ed Wood Jr – but especially the bizarre self-confessional ‘Glen or Glenda’ or the gloriously inept ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’, regularly voted the worst movie ever made, complete with one-dimensional cardboard sets (but still markedly more lifelike than the acting), wobbly hubcap spaceships, sudden day into night continuity blunders, and the tragic spectacle of Bela Lugosi giving his last performance as Wood heroically attempted to save him from the demons of his addiction. My personal favourite was the delightfully terrible ‘Robot Monster’, with a plot created around an alien being mounting his conquest of Earth armed predominantly with a large cardboard box which spouted soap bubbles (bravely trumpeted in the credits as the ‘Billion Bubble Machine’) and a monster whose appearance – as the producers-cum-directors-cum-cameramen admitted – owed his appearance to the fact that they knew a guy with a gorilla suit and another guy with a diving helmet. Hey presto, hirsute, helmet-clad beast engaged in endless long walks towards camera across scrubland just outside hometown. Awful, amateur, and marvellous entertainment, and an outing for lifelong movie buff father and son that I’ll treasure for life.
My most lasting Scala memory, and most marathon session, came when I left my 20th birthday lunch, bag of birthday cake in hand, to embark on an all afternoon, all night, cornucopia of low-budget outpourings that fell woefully short of B-Movie status, and struggled to rise above Z. Under the banner of ‘I Was a 50s Celluloid Zombie’, an auditorium full of true addicts soaked up a menu comprising:
The Beast with a Million Eyes; Demons of the Swamp; Invasion of the Saucermen; The Day the World Ended; Night of the Blood Beast; It Conquered the World; Voodoo Woman; The Brain Eaters; The Amazing Colossal Man; Terror Strikes; I Was a Teenage Frankenstein; The Beast from Haunted Cave; Wasp Woman; Woman Eater; Monster from the Ocean Floor; The Midnight Sun
As we staggered into the morning light after an orgy of bad acting, grainy photography, and rubber bug-eyed monsters that would surely be banned under the Geneva Convention were we to subject prisoners to it, I knew that I was lost forever to contemporary culture. Beat that Netflix!
Given my choice of viewing, it would be easy to get the impression that the Scala’s fare was obscure but tame, but the truth was quite the opposite. While I might have been feeding my obsession with midcentury movie making, the Scala’s programme was pushing the edges with regular doses of fringe and counterculture film. French and Japanese cinema appeared regularly in the absorbing A3+ monthly broadsheet programme. Todd Browning’s ‘Freaks’ received regular showings when TV was too scared to give it an airing, and all kinds of beat, drug culture and gay cinema welcomed sections of young filmgoers who would not have crossed the threshold of their local Granada. The Scala was diverse and multicultural at a time when in most popular culture that would have meant an ability to poke fun at women, homosexuals and foreigners at the same time. Indeed, it was the Scala team’s determination to bring the best of cinema to the public despite societal constraints that proved its undoing. In 1993, long after work had taken me away from London, they screened Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’, at that time under a long ban by those who feared that its portrayal of gang violence would prove too attractive to disaffected youth. A court case inevitably ensued and, despite a wave of popular support, the costs of fighting the combined corporate and legal might brought the Scala to its knees. It said farewell in a memorable party and passed into memory.
Fortunately, and somewhat incredibly given the regeneration of Kings Cross and its redevelopment as the Eurostar hub, the building has survived as an entertainment venue (unlike nearby Mole Jazz, but that’s another nostalgia trip). Even better – particularly for those of us with a passion for cataloguing our youth – the Scala’s history has been lovingly documented by those who worked there in a mammoth new book, containing reproductions of every one of those wonderful monthly broadsheets, along with a treasure trove of photographs and memorabilia. If you were a regular there, it’ll bring the memories flooding back; if you missed it, and you love cinema, then you could do worse than recreate some of their programmes. Settle back in your chair, peel the lid off a Losely ice-cream tub, and treat yourself to a night of the finest of cult film.
You can find details of the Scala book here.