The Scala Cinema: RIP

It’s probably true to say that if it wasn’t for the Scala cinema in Kings’ Cross, you wouldn’t be reading this. The works of Russ Meyer, H.G.Lewis, Walerian Borowczyk, and possibly even such giants as David Cronenberg and Jackie Chan, would still be a closed book to this editor, and the delights of celluloid sex ‘n’ violence might have passed me by.

You get the impression the Scala has always been on it’s Pentonville Road site, but it’s lifespan there was barely a decade. It’s had various sites in the past – I believe it once occupied the current Channel 4 building – and moved to Kings’ Cross in the early eighties, taking over a building previously used as a showcase for primates! I first encountered it in 1984, on a trip down to London, and wondered why a cinema was showing ‘The Cure in Orange’ – the concept of a repertory movie-house was alien to me.

My first trip to it was, I think, in 1988. The exact date is hazy, but I remember the occasion; an H.G.Lewis double bill. Discovering the Scala was like finding the Holy Grail, in that it seemed to show all the films I’d read about, but given up any hope of seeing. At this time I was staying down in Hampshire, so it was a substantial effort to go, but hell, it was better than staying in Farnborough…

If I have one memory, it must be the all-nighters. Sitting behind two dope-heads who were smoking what appeared to be a newspaper with a pound of best Moroccan rolled up in it. Engaging in verbal battles with assholes who shout “funny” comments out for eight hours on the trot. Cramp, caused by trying to sleep in the incredibly unergonomic chairs. Trying desperately to stop anyone sitting in front of you, so you can drape your legs over the seat instead. And this was fun!?!? But there were better times: seeing ‘Edge of Sanity’ three times in a week; the British premiere of ‘Scandal’, with more people in the Scala than I’ve ever seen for anything else; Shock Around the Clock (remember them?); the cat, with a malicious tendency to leap, unannounced, into your lap at the most spine-chilling moment.

But the programming lost it’s innovative identity; the prospect of seeing Vixen/Supervixen/Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens again eventually paled, and this is what probably led to the Scala’s demise. There were exceptions, especially in the last couple of months when they didn’t give a damn any more (not just ‘Deep Throat’, but a very dodgy film involving a household pet. Need I say any more, except possibly, “Woof”?), but there was little to entice punters into the Kings’ Cross crack dealing zone. Though the surrounding area was part of the appeal, it was ever an event to safely reach the foyer; no UCI multiplex has quite that edge. It was also comforting to know that if the film proved unbearably bad, you could always pop out for some substance abuse or a quick blow-job.

Of course, there was also the ‘Orange’ fiasco; I hope Warner Bros. are satisfied, having got lots of free publicity for the imminent re-release of the movie. And the rent increase by the snooker club beneath that owned it. And the imminent Channel Tunnel link. In the end, it was all too much, and the Scala died on June 6th, 1993. It went down with all guns blazing, literally, the last evening being a Chow Yun Fat festival, graced by the King of Hong Kong cinema himself. It was a serious lump-in-throat situation to be among the last people to leave the auditorium that night, after the final film, ‘Prison on Fire’.

“It was a dump, but it was our dump”, someone said on the way out, and that hits the nail on the head. No Cannon or MGM could ever generate the same attachment. One glimmer of hope: the Scala has moved before and maybe, just maybe, it will find somewhere new to operate from. For there’s nowhere even remotely like it, and it would be a shame if London was to permanently lose the unique programming, the incredible acid-trip mural-blasted foyer, the surly staff (located where they were, who can blame them?) and the incomparable feel that really was the Scala.