"A Man Was Travelling Down The Stairs Completely Upside-Down" - Strange Stories From The Scala Cinema

"A Man Was Travelling Down The Stairs Completely Upside-Down" - Strange Stories From The Scala Cinema

Jane Giles recalls moments from her time working at the legendary (and legendarily notorious) Scala Cinema.

the scala cinema frontage
The Scala Cinema is the subject of a new documentary, currently crowdfunding.

As programme manager of London's infamous Scala cinema my job was to deliver a daily-changing repertory schedule of double-bills: classics, cult movies, kung fu, horror, comedy, music films and LGBT+.

I'd usually stand at the back of the cinema to check the pre-digital era 35mm film prints weren't too ragged. Once during the opening credits of Taxi Zum Klo I felt a large hand on my backside, "Do you mind?" I snapped. "Sorry love" came the gruff reply of a good-natured leather boy, "I thought you were a bloke."

A Scala programme from September 1983
A Scala programme from September 1983

Another time while checking the print of Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears it got to the scene in which Alfred Molina as Kenneth Halliwell mimes stroking a cat. At that moment the Scala's real life cat, Huston (named after then recently deceased film director John Huston) spotted me from across the auditorium where he liked to sleep. As Halliwell's stroking turns to strangling the imaginary cat, Huston let out his biggest "FEED ME NOW" miaow to the confusion of the audience. The Scala cats were legendary.

Huston the cinema cat in the Scala box office 1990.

In August 1989 the Scala hosted an attempt by maverick Camden video company Psychotronic to stage a late-1950s William Castle double-bill, recreating the original special effects. The Tingler was shown in 'Percepto' using batteries and buzzers to imitate the sensation of a fear-related, spine-tingling parasite running amok in the auditorium. House on Haunted Hill featured 'Emergo' in which a skeleton suddenly flies above the heads of the cinema's terrified spectators. The Scala programme advised persons with heart complaints or of a sensitive disposition not to attend. In fact, the most traumatic part of the show was trying to get the special effects to work, particularly the skeleton which limped slowly along a wire winched above a jeering audience who pelted it with stuff.

The graffiti covered Scala cafe foyer in 1986
The Scala cafe foyer in 1986

A year later I was sitting at the back of the Scala watching Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth's latest event, headlined by Genesis P-Orridge. On screen Cosey Fanni Tutti was apparently castrating an acolyte in the infamous performance film, After Cease to Exist. And then I saw something even stranger. A man was travelling down the cinema stairs completely upside-down, like the image projected by a Camera Obscura. Not standing on his hands, but on his head. I still don’t understand what I saw, whether it was magick or all in my own mind, but these were the sort of things that happened at the Scala. Happy days!

A documentary about the Scala Cinema, produced by Jane's Fifty Foot Woman Ltd company — and with all the bonkers headiness of the old venue — is currently in the works, and they need your help to fund it.

Last Updated 08 October 2021

Continued below.