Remembering The Gloriously Debauched Scala Cinema

By Londonist Last edited 69 months ago

Last Updated 18 September 2018

Remembering The Gloriously Debauched Scala Cinema

With a mission to fill the land with cinemas, Scalarama has spread from its humble roots in a backroom bar in Borough and is now celebrating its 8th glorious year. Author Jane Giles remembers the groundbreaking cinema that inspired it, the Scala.

A poster for Female Trouble, 1980

Scalarama is named after London's most infamous and influential repertory cinema, the Scala. It specialised in cult movies, music films, horror, Kung Fu and LGBT+ cinema. The Scala showed a different double-bill every day with Saturday All-Nighters, and its audience was as diverse as its repertoire.

'The Pope of Trash', filmmaker John Waters, says "The Scala had magic. It was like joining a club — a very secret club, like a biker gang or something… 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".

The Scala in 1981. Image: David Babsky
The Cramps at the Scala in 1986. Image: Roz Kidd

The night that the Scala premiered his film Hairspray has gone down in history. "The audience was even more berserk than any I had ever seen in America," says Waters. "Maybe they were on ecstasy, I don't know, but it was really a raucous audience. It was so good, it was almost scary."

An Avengers convention, 1980

The Scala also built up a loyal fanbase for other gay auteurs such as Andy Warhol, Pasolini, Fassbinder and Derek Jarman, who loved to watch the audience watching his films at the Scala and could often be seen at the All-Night gay movie marathons. "I think a lot of mischief went on those nights." said Jarman’s friend, the late Keith Collins. The managers would always have to replace the lightbulbs the next day and the Scala acquired the nickname, 'The Sodom Odeon'.

The Scala's resident cat Roy,in 1988. Image: Mair Payne
Shock Around the Clock, 1989. Image: David Hyman

Over the years, the Scala hosted many All-Night LGBT+ clubs such as The Mix and Trash which featured films, DJs and performers. "A couple of things stand out," says club promoter Jeff Duncan, remembering a routine visit by Camden Fire Brigade to check for overcrowding. Escorted to the manager's office they were met by Jayne County backcombing her hair with one of her boobs hanging out, asking for a line of speed, while Lily Savage (Paul O'Grady) was getting dressed. On other occasions, Trash featured a gay version of Blind Date hosted by (the now Reverend) Richard Coles, and Boy George sang onstage ("what a drama diva she was!").

A scala goer in 1988. image: Matthew Caldwell
Projectionist Billy Bell in 1981. Image: David Babsky

Fashion designer Mike Nicholls was then living in a King's Cross squat with the classically trained ballet dancer Matthew Hawkins and the corset maker Mr. Pearl. They devised a show for The Mix with the Neo Naturists, the performance group started in 1981. It was just before a screening of ABBA: The Movie and the crowd wasn't having any of it. "They hated our performance art and ridiculous costumes and semi-nudity," said Nicholls. "They started stamping and shouting and throwing full cans of beer at us." The projectionist started the film midway through their routine, to a massive cheer from the audience, leaving Nicholls and the Neo Naturists to make the walk of shame back through the auditorium.

The Scala was just a few steps away from The Bell, one of London's most popular and influential mixed lesbian and gay venues. Post-Earls Court and pre-Soho, the King's Cross of the 1980s-early 1990s was an LGBT+ haven, but the redevelopment of the area closed many of these venues and there's nothing quite like the Scala left on London's cinema scene.

A Scalarama celluloid double-bill of Pink Narcissus and Scorpio Rising shows at the Curzon Soho on 30 September, presented by Jane Giles. She's talking about her new book, Scala Cinema 1978-1993 (FAB Press), which is launched with an event at the Scala, King's Cross on 26 September. Everyone welcome.