Remembering the Scala Cinema: London’s All-Night ‘Country Club for Lunatics’

‘The Scala had magic. It was like joining a very secret club, like a biker gang or something…' - John Waters

The Scala cinema in London’s Kings Cross was a place to sleep, take drugs all night and throw lit paper airplanes at the screen. It remains the only cinema where as a Barbie doll dressed as the signer Karen Carpenter in The Karen Carpenter Story burned, a man crouched in the row in front began stroking my friend’s foot while the woman behind lobbed a full can of Red Stripe at someone called ‘Malc The Talc’ and bellowed for “skins”.  Now it’s been recalled in a book – Scala Cinema 1978-1993 by Jane Giles is published by FAB Press.

 

Opening night of the Kings Cross Scala, 1981. Photograph- FAB Press

Opening night of the Kings Cross Scala, 1981. Photograph- FAB Press

In the summer of 1981 I was, like Viv, a teenager in the audience with a boyfriend’s arm around my shoulders. We were up from the sticks for a quintuple bill that included Assault on Precinct 13 and Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. The intermission music was Love Will Tear Us Apart. That night I fell for the Scala’s incredible atmosphere and its eclectic mix of cult movies, horror, hardcore experimenta and LGBT cinema, which became my unofficial film education.
– Jane Giles

 

SCala cinema programme 1986

Scala cinema programme 1986

 

The Scala was launched by Stephen Woolley out of the ashes of a defunct socialist collective on the site of an ancient concert hall and theatre in Fitzrovia. Pushed out of its premises by the arrival of Channel 4 television in 1981, the Scala moved to the Primatarium, a former picture palace and one-time rock venue in King’s Cross. A lone operator, the Scala closed down in mid-1993, following a perfect storm of lease expiry, the financial ravages of the recession, the redevelopment of the local area … and a devastating court case.
Fab Press

 

 

Scala cashier, 1988. Photograph- Matthew Caldwell

Divine Ticket, 1982

Divine Ticket, 1982

‘The Scala had magic. It was like joining a very secret club, like a biker gang or something… They could show films uncut because they had memberships, well that’s insane! It’s like they were a country club for criminals and lunatics and people that were high… Which is a good way to see movies’
John Waters

 

Billy Bell, technician installing projection equipment at Scala King’s Cross, 1981 Photograph- David Babsky

Billy Bell, technician installing projection equipment at Scala King’s Cross, 1981 Photograph- David Babsky

 

“The area felt quietly dangerous. That was partially the inspiration for Mona Lisa [Neil Jordan’s movie starring Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine] – working at the Scala on those all-nighters and wandering around at four in the morning in the backstreets of Kings Cross and just observing what was happening there. It was pretty scary.”
Stephen Woolley

 

Lux Interior of the Cramps with Scala programmer JoAnne Sellar at the launch of The Return of the Living Dead, 1986. Photograph- Roz Kidd

Lux Interior of the Cramps with Scala programmer JoAnne Sellar at the launch of The Return of the Living Dead, 1986. Photograph- Roz Kidd

 

A sleeping punter at Shock Around the Clock, 1989 Photograph- David Hyman

A sleeping punter at Shock Around the Clock, 1989 Photograph- David Hyman

Huston, the cinema’s cat, 1987 Photograph- Mair Payne

Huston, the cinema’s cat, 1987 Photograph- Mair Payne

Foyer of the Scala, c1990. Photograph- FAB Press

Foyer of the Scala, c1990. Photograph- FAB Press

 

“I often used to spend the whole night in the Scala, dozing towards the early hours with a boyfriend’s arm around me, drinking double vodkas. The Scala’s where I first saw the films of John Waters, Russ Meyer and Ingmar Bergman. I’ll never forget the first time I went there on my own, to see Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. I was utterly entranced by the film and loved that I didn’t have anybody next to me to think about or be distracted by.

“I always felt safe at the Scala, so had no qualms about going there alone, whereas I wouldn’t have even considered it at any other cinema. I still remember almost every frame of that vivid, female-led film. I was at film school at the time, and seeing The Red Shoes that afternoon made such a deep impression on me that I went back to see all of Powell and Pressburger’s films and became a lifelong fan.”
Viv Albertine

 

scala interior

 

Scala Cinema 1978-1993 by Jane Giles is published by FAB Press. Buy it here.