Scala!!!: an unabashed celebration of a cult cinema’s grimy glory days in pre-gentrified London

Trashy film clips and dozens of interviews with former staff capture the vibrant spirit of the subversive Scala cinema in this nostalgic documentary.

Scala!!! (2023)Osbert Parker

The seats were uncomfortable, the floor was sticky, it smelled weird, there was often illicit behaviour occurring in the dark, and the whole building rumbled every time a Northern Line train passed underneath. The Scala cinema in King’s Cross offered a filmgoing experience like no other, and 30 years after its closure, mention of the venue still inspires misty-eyed reveries in cinephiles of a certain age. Some will recall the epiphany they experienced watching Eraserhead (1977), or a sexual awakening sparked by films like Sebastiane (1976) and Un chant d’amour (1950), but many will be just as likely to reminisce about the venue itself. Being part of the chaotic atmosphere in the audience appeared to be as much of a draw as the images on the screen. 

Former Scala programmer Jane Giles (who also produced a 2018 book on the cinema’s history) and journalist Ali Catterall have assembled many of the Scala’s habitual attendees for their feature documentary Scala!!! – perhaps a few too many, in truth. There are more than 40 interviewees in this snappily edited 96-minute film, and a more judicious edit may have lost such contributions as Ralph Brown remembering serving Boy George a cup of tea or Paul Putner’s account of watching Laurel and Hardy with an enthusiastic crowd. A more memorable soundbite comes from an archive clip of a prim middle-aged woman named Mrs Reeve talking about her love of the Scala’s horror programme. “I don’t see there’s any harm in it at all,” she says. “I mean, I don’t go out of here wanting to chainsaw somebody.”

The Scala building interior

Scala!!! is on firmer footing when Giles and Catterall manage to place the cinema within a wider social context. They open with Margaret Thatcher’s “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” speech, which she gave on the eve of one of the most politically and socially fractious decades in British history, and during this era the Scala was an inviting place for anyone who felt unwelcome elsewhere. It was a particularly important hub for the gay community in the era of Aids and Section 28. It is notable just how many of the outsiders who found their place at the Scala would impact British culture in the subsequent decades, with filmmakers like John Akomfrah crediting the Scala with helping them find their artistic voice.

It is suggested in the film that the Scala had become a marked venue some time before its closure, with the authorities looking for a reason to shut it down, and it’s not hard to see why. The cinema’s culture of drug-taking and sex is cheerfully discussed, as is the lack of any age restrictions on its clientele. Two customer deaths during screenings are mentioned by interviewees; the second of these, recounted by an emotional Mark Valen, is the film’s most affecting moment. 

Scala Cinema programme from August 1989

The Scala ran into trouble in 1993, when Giles was prosecuted for a screening of A Clockwork Orange (1971), a film that is now a staple of the repertory cinema circuit, not least at the Scala’s spiritual heir, the Prince Charles Cinema, off Leicester Square. Curiously, despite John Waters playfully questioning Giles, there is no interrogation of the decision to screen the film or the consequences of it, beyond Giles telling us it was “a big deal”.

This isn’t a documentary in the business of interrogation, however. Scala!!! is unashamedly a celebration and an exercise in nostalgia. On those terms it must be regarded as a success, and anyone who attended the Scala in its heyday is likely to enjoy a vicarious thrill from the anecdotes, the trashy film clips, and the distinctive printed programmes. For those who didn’t, Scala!!! may be most evocative as an enticing portrait of life in a pre-gentrified London, where a night at the cinema cost you £2 and came with an added frisson of excitement and danger, a sense that anything could happen. As Stewart Lee notes, after recalling an old man berating the audience during the porn epic Thundercrack! (1975) before sitting down to watch the rest of it, “You don’t get that in a multiplex.”

 ► Scala!!! is in UK cinemas now and available to stream on BFI Player from 22 January. 

SCALA SPIRIT: 30 transgressive films perfect for a raucous midnight screening

30 years since the demise of London’s legendary Scala cinema – a haven for mavens of arthouse obscurities and gloriously scuzzy cinema – we celebrate the new documentary Scala!!! by asking writers, critics and filmmakers – including John Waters, Bette Gordon, Peter Strickland and Edgar Wright – for the post-Scala flicks they’d put on the bill were the cinema still open today.

SCALA SPIRIT: 30 transgressive films perfect for a raucous midnight screening