Children Of The Scala

Thursday, August 25 2011
Children Of The Scala

Many who grew up watching films at London’s legendary Scala cinema – or at least wishing they could go or were there – are alive and well and running DVD labels, as the Scala Forever season proves. The Raygun, once a devotee of everything from its Laurel and Hardy days and pre-Christmas It’s A Wonderful Life screenings through to its acid-tinged psychedelic and John Waters’ all-nighters, speaks to former programmer and now BFI head of content Jane Giles about its influence on today’s DVD market…

It all seems like an eternity ago. When this writer first went to the Scala Cinema, in London’s King Cross more than a quarter of a century ago, the world was a far different place. VHS was the dominant format but, unless you were in and around the West End of London, and stores such as Palace Video, seeing anything beyond the burgeoning mainstream video market or its shadier straight to rental sibling (predominantly horror, albeit some great ones) was nigh on impossible. I remember touring the numerous rental stores all over my town looking for something a bit different or exciting, beyond our staple diet of horror, daft comedies and the odd, er, special interest title. What’s more, many of the more exciting, extreme horror films weren’t available for home viewing, having been outlawed (or near-outlawed, or pursued so relentlessly by the press, that no self-respecting store would dare stock them, especially if it didn’t want irate customers with pitchforks outside its doors).

And owning films wasn’t really an option; at the time the nascent retail market (then called – ugh – sell through) was driven as much by music as anything else. I might have owned a few pre-recorded video cassettes, but they were pretty much all music-related (anyone for The Birthday Party’s Pleasure Heads Must Burn, filmed in Manchester’s Hacienda in ridiculously dark conditions?).

So where did budding film fans go? A good few went to repertory – or rep – cinema. There were a fair few dotted around London and other major metropolitan centres, but one was arguably the most famous, or rather infamous, of the lot. And that was the Scala. Not to dwell too much on its history and modus operandi, there’s scores of other features out there about its history, but for us, at any rate, the Scala went hand in hand with the 1980s rental boom. Horrors at home on one hand, then trash at the Scala; dubious adult material round a mate’s then Russ Meyer at the Scala; music bits recorded back to back off the telly at home, psychedelic all-nighters at the Scala… The fact that the same people behind the Palace Video operation, both the label and the shop, made them seem all the more closer to my mind.

But they weren’t necessarily that closely aligned.

And although the Scala’s eventual demise in the early 1990s, not long after Palace had folded amid much acrimony, seemed linked to the growth of retail video, the two weren’t necessarily as connected as you might think.

“It was probably coincidence rather than design,” says Jane Giles, once a programmer at the Scala and now head of content at the BFI, who is perhaps better qualified than anyone to discuss the links between the Scala and the video market. She has been involved with the current Scala Forever season playing all across London to rave reviews, and will be appearing in a guest panel on September 17 to discuss the cinema’s legacy. “Because Stephen Woolley set up the Scala and Palace Video, the sensibility of both was the same so they shared many titles, but it was two separate companies and the cinema programming was separate from the video label.

“When Palace went bankrupt the cinema remained operational and only closed in 1993 because the building lease ran out and there were no assets to afford the schedule of delipidation that went with renewal and no chance of getting investment because the land site was earmarked by British Rail for (Channel Tunnel) development.”

Obviously there were some loose links. As Giles explains: “Back in the early 80s Neil Jordan’s Angel opened at the Scala (it was the first film that Stephen bought as a distributor, I think) and a couple of Palace films that didn’t get full theatrical releases were shown as extended runs at the Scala (I think Siesta though this was before my time, but certainly Hardware). The Scala didn’t do this theatrical platforming for any other distributor  – hang on, there was an extended run of a Dennis Hopper starrer called The American Way in 1989 but it flopped. I also did extended runs of Django (in 1991) and Pink Narcissus for the BFI who had theatrical rights through their Exhibition department but there was no strategic link between the cinema exhibition and the titles coming out on VHS then DVD as the market matured. In the case of Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, it was bought in by a festival and I liked it so much that I hung on to the print and did an exhibition deal with the producer. It was later snapped up by Electric Pictures for VHS.”

Obviously that link to video nasties was, to some, key. Henry later on went to fall foul of the BBFC during the early 1990s crackdown on video. 

“The Bright Bill obviously closed down programming options,” explains Giles, “but also sparked debate and interest. I remember the Scala doing a season called ‘Sliver Bright’s Liver’, just to further the point. I used to get visits from the Vice Squad who would run lists of banned titles past me to ask if I’d ever shown any of them. I hadn’t even heard of most them I used to tell the guys they’d make great programmers but I don’t think this amused them.

The Scala never had any money to import films (the Michael Almereyda film Twister was bought in via the US diplomatic bag, because of my ferocious interest in Crispin Glover!). And the Scala could only screen 35mm and 16mm, never video (except when we hired a player in for Richard Kern and then couldn’t get it to work) so we were limited to what was available on film prints in the UK, unlike the amazing Scala Forever season which really is testament to the brilliance of DVD publishing on an international scale.

“As the BFI’s James Blackford has pointed out, the labels like Shameless, Arrow, Second Run, Peccadillo and others taking part in the season are really celebrating the films of the 80s rep scene while the BFI’s own Flipside is getting right into titles that were never available to me as a cinema programmer, such as Deep End, The Bed Sitting Room and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.”

If the new Scala Forever season is the joining of forces between the Scala’s mentality and UK independent DVD publishers’ excellence, it illustrates maybe how video didn’t necessarily kill off rep cinemas such as the Scala.

“As VHS became cheaper to buy it became a more viable option for some than the costs of going to the cinema as a group (travel, tickets, food – it all adds up). However the decline in rep cinema going was also attributable to a combination of (i) the dilapidation of the building and the film prints, which made it a really uncomfortable experience by the end; (ii) as pub/club opening hours were extended the social scene changed in London; (iii) ultimately it was no longer fashionable to see a Robert Bresson triple in a freezing uncomfortable cinema clutching a bit of carrot cake and a cup of foul coffee.

“Although rep was often the only way to see a film in the 70s and 80s, we know now that cinema and video are complimentary rather than competitive and both feed into audiences love and wider understanding of film in all its manifestations.”

We must admit, that we do miss sitting with a bit of carrot cake in a freezing cinema in a Kings Cross that was far worse then that it could ever be now, but the Scala has informed our involvement in the trade press since and we’ll still single out films we remember from its original monthly information sheets handed out at the cinema. 

• The DVD-friendly Scala Forever programme, much of which involves friends of The Raygun in and around the industry, runs until early October. For more see here. We hope to see you at one or two of the events…

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