King's Cross Was Nearly Home To A Forest Of Monkeys

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 20 months ago
King's Cross Was Nearly Home To A Forest Of Monkeys
This chap could have ended up at King's Cross. He didn't. Photo: Vit L

As traffic rushes past on Pentonville Road, commuters scuttle towards King's Cross station, and tube trains rattle around under your feet, it's hard to imagine a location less arboreal than that of live music venue Scala. Yet the world-famous club was once almost home to a forest of monkeys.

We'll start at the beginning.

The building first opened as a cinema in the 1920s, and functioned as such until the 1970s when a combination of a short foray into adult film screenings and a stint as an all-night rock venue led to the licence being revoked, and the cinema closing.

The building was left for five years, before capturing the interest of Cyril Rosen, a Londoner and animal rights activist who founded the British branch of the International Primate Protection League. Rosen was known in his own right for taking his West African Mona monkey Sousa on his Northern line commute everyday. He hit upon the idea of opening a 'Primatarium' (this is thought to be the first, and only, use of this word), where the public could learn about monkeys.

According to Who Gives A Monkeys, Rosen said;

I felt if we could reproduce an original forest environment and people could experience being in a forest, this would make it easier [to convince people to protect species].

However, plans were scaled back from Rosen's original idea due to health and safety. Items such as fire exits and signs, which the Greater London Council insisted upon (jobsworths), were through to detract from the forest experience.

Today the venue is Scala. Photo: Bob Lear

The stalls were still turned into a hillside, and pumps were used to create waterfalls, but the main purpose of the space was to screen films about primates in these unusual surroundings. The opening night was reportedly attended by politician Michael Heseltine.

Some monkeys or primates were still kept in the building; Film director Richard Stanley describes it as

a vast ape house, painted jungles crawling across its walls and its sepuchral auditorium filled with astroturf. When I last looked there were still deserted cages in the basement and if you inhaled deeply enough you could just catch the faint hint of musk and dried urine.

King Kong (1933) was the first film shown when the building reopened as a cinema.

Descriptions of the attraction are few and far between. One blog describes the primatarium as "a hokey 'ecological' exhibition with a sorry collection of caged monkeys as its central attraction... a throwback to carnivalesque hucksterism" — although it's unclear if the writer ever visited the primatarium themselves.

The primatarium only lasted for around 18 months when a lack of interest forced it to close. Rosen believed that it would have been more successful has his original plan gone ahead — people weren't as interested in attending a seated experience. The only image that seems to exist from its short opening is this one of the exterior of the building.

Appropriately, the first film shown when the venue opened as a cinema again in July 1981 was King Kong.

Do you have any memories of the King's Cross Primatarium? Let us know in the comments below.

Last Updated 12 May 2017