La Scala -A Great London Landmark

Written by The Hawk
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There is nothing I hate more than a majestic piece of history just forgotten, worse still nothing I hate more than history forgotten so soon after it's time. Saturday  on Pentonville Road, Kings Cross, London is the well known Scala Nightclub, a location popular with upcoming bands and singers and now legendary in the Drum And Bass scene. Since 1999 Scala Nightclub has carved itself a certain reputation in London nightlife. But what is the saddest tale of all is that beneath what you see now, is an infinitely more appealing Scala that for over 10 years became a hub of activity and controversy.

The site where Scala sat had a very varied life during the 1920's Scala operated as The King's Cross Cinema, and had for a period of time reasonable trade. Between 1921 and 1929 the cinema changed hands more times than some had varied dinners in the same timeline. From 1929 to the Second World War trade was constant and the cinema was owned by Gaumont British Pictures. But at some point, exact date unknown the building was bombed by German fighter planes flying overhead. The result was that the cinema closed and fell into a dire state of disrepair until 1952, when it re-opened as The Gaumont.

In 1962 the Cinema was bought out and re-opened as the Odeon which lasted until 1970. In 1971 the cinema went in a dramatically different direction re-opening as Cineclub; the choice of movies was strictly of an adult nature. With raids, embarrassment and all sorts of other controversy after four months of trading Cineclub came to a sudden, but highly expected close. Later in the same year the cinema re-opened as The King's Cross Cinema again with a themed cinema and venue for music. Having then tried to change into a sports complex, the cinema finally closed in its known form in 1975 and began to fall into disrepair. It was the form the cinema took in 1980 that was the most bizarre, as a sort of Eco-Project the legendary seating was pulled out, untold historical damage done to the building, in order to lay grass and show strange "nature" style films, called the Primatarium the key interest to the then owner/tenant was monkeys.

In 1977 on Tottenham Street a group formed in a cinema known as The Other Cinema. This group was called the Scala Club. Scala was a speciality club showing classic movies to a select group of individuals. In 1978 Stephen Woolley (later the part owner of Palace Pictures), took over Scala and began to change the format moving on from classic to cult movies. In 1981 Scala had grown in popularity and saw a window of opportunity by acquiring tenancy of the Primatarium. Opening under their own rights as The Scala, the cinema screened the original King Kong and progressed to show more unusual and progressively daring pictures.

Scala was different to any other cinema in the UK, it was very much a place to turn up, chill out, and really let your hair down. Never the best part of Pentonville Road to be in, Scala was a place strangely out of time, it's clientele varied from business professionals, stuffy upper class types, punks, the lesbian and gay community, drug users, alcoholics, and plain good old movie lovers that wanted a different experience. Scala was a place where anything quite literally would go, if you wanted to have sex then it was off to the back row, if you wanted to smoke whatever took your fancy it was the centre seats, and if you quite simply wanted to watch and love movies it was straight up to the front. Scala flaunted every public law possible it could inviting its clients to do whatever they saw fit. At times smoke at the centre part of the cinema was so extreme that often the beam of the projector found it difficult to penetrate the smoke, smoking incidentally had been banned in cinemas many years before. Whatever your vice, Scala was a night-time venue for those that wanted more stimulation than pop music, those that wanted culture, and an ambience that they could not get anywhere else.

Over the next few years things at Scala changed dramatically offering its visitors an experience they could not get anywhere else at that time. Straight after the British board of film classification had their arms twisted to be more vigilant and video tapes of movies in the home became fashionable, censorship in Britain reached a pinnacle, with more or less any movie with an 18 certificate falling foul of the censors. At this time Scala again flaunted these rules and showed movies both in their uncut form, but also often showing movies that were banned in the UK. The Exorcist, Salo, I Spit On Your Grave, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were all movies made illegal by the BBFC and the government, yet Scala stood up and showed them. In the mid 1980's the focus moved towards bigger targets in the world of adult, gay, and horror cinema. And as these progressions occurred so did further change at Scala, the cinema showed different movies every night, with calendars of schedules released often months in advance.

The cinema became the ultimate haunt, all night horror movie marathons proved incredibly successful driving people from the nightclubs into the cinemas, where they could enjoy both alcohol and the culture of movies they could not see anywhere else.

What is most strange about Scala was that at its height of popularity things were being ran at their worst, staff did as they felt, the projectionists were often so out of their heads on whatever the drug of the moment was that film reels were often placed in the wrong order, or not even played at all. The whole Scale experience became so hit and miss that people often thought they were just watching movies that were meant to be almost nonsensical. Outside the projection booth, staff performed, drank and fornicated with the patrons of Scala; but it just became all the more popular.

It's of no surprise I guess that this story had to come to an end, and the past tense manner I have spoken about Scala in this whole piece is a clear indication of this. Censorship began to lift in the UK, and more and more movies made it onto video, the exact sort of movies Scala chose to show. It was indeed time to up the ante, and then manager Jane Giles knew exactly how to do that. Giles committed the ultimate sin, on April 1st 1992 Scala showed the full and uncut version of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange; a movie outlawed in the UK after director Kubrick received death threats. Without permission to screen the movie Warner Brothers, FACT (Federation of copyright theft) and Kubricks own legal counsel all took a civil action against Scala, at a time audiences were at an all time low and the landlord wanted a hefty rent increase.

In April 1993 Giles was prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and in June after a screening of King Kong, Scala closed its doors forever. After months of campaigning, and incredibly hard partying it was apparent that nothing could save Scala, and a unique piece of history, the only ever Grindhouse cinema the UK ceased to exist.

Scala's effect on UK cinema is far more than anyone will ever truly appreciate, making mockery of the government by screening banned movies, and films were forced out of censorship. Copycat cinemas tried their hand at mimicking Scala's charm, but none were a  match for Scala.

© Words – The Hawk

Read 6498 times Last modified on Monday, 09 November 2020 10:29
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