Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Scala

The Scala is a trendy London club/music venue in London’s King’s Cross business district. Nothing very exciting or hauntological there you’d be right in thinking.

But behind it’s grimy neo-classical façade it has a history. Built as a cinema during WWI, it went through a number of incarnations including time as a factory, unemployment centre and hosting London’s first (only?) primatarium. The faint acrid scent of animal urine still clung to the lower passages of the building decades later, though that may have been the presence of the local winos who came in for a warm during winter months.

A number of concerts were held there during the 1970s, including (inevitably) Hawkwind, and most notably the only British appearance by Iggy and the Stooges, featured on the cover of the ‘Raw Power’ album.

The developers have cleared a swathe but King’s Cross at night still has some of the shady character that permeated throughout during many years of neglect. Coffee bars, jazz record shops, dirty pubs, prostitutes, snooker halls and the threat of violence made this incredibly attractive to a naïve teenage bohemian wannabe from the suburbs like me. And then there were the films.

In the not so distant 1980s past the Scala was the city’s premier reperatory cinema, showing at least three different arthouse films (not “movies”) 364 days a year on a single large screen, and all-nighters every Saturday. One had to pay a nominal membership fee and the cheap-as-chips ticket price allowed one to sit through all three films. During presentations one could watch the resident cats chasing mice down the aisles. Smoking and (discreet) drinking were permitted, and plenty rather more sordid acts frequently occurred. I was hooked and was a regular visitor for a number of years, expanding my cinematic education.

I present here a sample of the monthly A2 poster listings sheet, which I considered a work of art in itself and acquired religiously every month to paper my bedroom walls with. Details of the films/events were listed on the reverse.

It was always a shoestring operation though it managed to limp along until in 1993 a disgruntled projectionist reported the regular illicit screenings of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to the authorities. The film had been withdrawn in the UK at Stanley Kubrick’s personal request and when he was informed he issued legal proceedings, and that was the ignoble end of that particular incarnation of the Scala. It was also more or less the end of rep cinema in London and the UK. A few clung on (Duke of York’s, Brighton, Cornerhouse, Manchester) but the breadth of choice the Scala offered was lost. Video/DVD at home is fine, but it ain't the same.

I like buildings that have a past, whether real or imagined. They give hope that the failings of the contemporary environment are merely transient, and that something better may yet come.


  1. Late night cinema going is one of the great pleasures of life. We shall not see its like again.

  2. Yes, a wonderful place...I visited on a relatively regular basis, particularly for the all-nighters: we would travel down from Birmingham for a concert, and then make our way to the Scala to use it as a dosshouse for the night, coming out into a grey Kings Cross early in the morning...Fantastic programming which mixed 'high' and 'low' in equal measure, and the posters were great souvenirs!