Gustav Temple enjoys the immersive nature of a new documentary about London’s notorious Scala Cinema.
One of the memories that captures the essence of my mispent youth is of staggering out of the Scala Cinema at dawn, coming down from a cocktail of cheap speed and cornershop whisky, and bumping into a similarly dishevelled Shane MacGowan, surrounded by commuters pouring into King’s Cross Underground station. We both looked at the gaping maw of the tube station in horror and went off in our separate directions to the hovels we inhabited in the area. I had just spent the whole night in the Scala, where the programme had promised weird psychedelic films such as The Trip and Hell’s Angels on Wheels interspersed with recitals from bands like Doctor and the Medics, plus support.
The main band was scheduled to appear at 3am, so my pals and I devised ways of staying awake until then. As a back-up to the low-grade amphetamines we had secured, we bought something called Pro-Plus from the chemist, a caffeine supplement that did the job of keeping you alert, with a clear warning on the label not to consume with alcohol.
At around 2.30 am we discovered why, with our hands shaking and our faces glowing with a sticky perspiration, while Peter Fonda drifted around Los Angeles on the screen, in a similarly psyched-out condition. We weren’t just watching the film, we were the supporting cast in the film. If you fell into a twitchy, sweaty slumber for a few blessed minutes, you would wake up wondering whether you were dreaming a particularly vivid, technicolor nightmare or still watching some B-movie in the Scala Cinema.
This was what the Scala was all about, not just for our band of merry pranksters but also, as we soon discovered, for most of the patrons. The Scala offered immersive cinema, in which the venue itself assumed the role of a character in the film being screened, as well as resembling the dusty old canister in which the celluloid had lain for many decades. The films they showed were considered too peculiar for a screening at the Odeon and not naughty enough to be shown at the ABC, a notorious porn cinema on Piccadilly. Via The Scala’s eclectic and challenging programmes, we got to see films that, pre-internet, we would never have heard of, unless it was mentioned in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which they frequently were.
The cinema’s programming was offering more than entertainment – it was an education in arthouse cinema. You didn’t have to attend the all-nighters (although we felt duty bound to do so) to enjoy the Scala. You could sit through a triple-bill on a Tuesday afternoon of French avant-garde films or a brace of Andy Warhols; though you would need more than a bag of speed to keep you awake through those.
The new film, released by the BFI and directed by Jane Giles and Ali Catterall, is simply titled Scala!!!, though it has the subtitle of ‘Or, the incredibly strange rise and fall of the world’s wildest cinema and how it influenced a mixed-up generation of weirdos and misfits’. Many of these weirdos and misfits are interviewed in the film, most of them seated on the cracked marble steps of the original Scala, which is now a music venue. Co-director Jane Giles ran the place until its demise in 1993, while film writer Ali Cattterall, the other co-director, was a regular attendee. They managed to assemble a seemingly random group of filmmakers, artists, writers, actors and musicians who all attended the Scala during the 1980s, yet who all share, in their current work, a thread of the anarcho-aesthetic spirit of the cinema. From Adam Buxton to John Waters, their immersion in obscure cinema and even obscurer bands laid the groundwork for a later productive output that perhaps never recovered from watching Thundercrack! at four in the morning. And thank goodness for that.
But unofficial top billing in Scala!!! must go to Ralph Brown, who played Danny the drug dealer in Withnail & I. His hilarious reminiscences about the Scala reveal that his character Danny could have emerged from behind one of the stained seats at the cinema, his icy hands forcing you into your seat as you sat through a screening of Eraserhead. “You have made your bwain extwemely high.”
Whether you gained your cinematic education from the Scala Cinema or not, the film takes you right back to its heyday in the 1980s, skilfully using stock news footage and clips from some of the arthouse films screened to immerse you in its world once again. The comfy seat you are watching it from today will gradually start to feel more uncomfortable and you will become convinced of the stickiness of the carpet under your feet. You may even feel slightly shaky as you leave the cinema, wondering whether the ghost of Shane MacGowan will be waiting for you outside.
Scala!!! is in selected cinemas from 5th January and on BFI Player from 22nd January. Blu-Ray available from BFI Shop