Scala cinema, the ‘grungy fairy palace’ of King’s Cross
For years, the Scala cinema blazed a trail through the capital’s cultural scene. Dan Carrier talks to the author of a new book about the King’s Cross icon
07 December, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Jane Giles outside the Scala
IT was, says Jane Giles, a “grungy fairy palace”, and now, more than two decades since the last film was shown and the last party thrown, her warm description of the Scala cinema feels just right.
The Scala blazed a trail across London’s cultural landscape between 1978 and 1993 years, becoming the capital’s most notorious and influential repertory cinema.
Now its story is told by Jane, who worked as the cinema’s programmer – a job that entailed putting together a hugely diverse range of films each month at the legendary King’s Cross cinema.
As her lavishly illustrated book shows, the Scala started life in Fitzrovia in the late 1970s, before moving to its landmark site in Pentonville Road in July 1981. Just three months after being forced from its Fitzrovia home, proprietor Stephen Woolley had found what was a defunct attraction called a “Primatarium” – the brainchild of animal rights activist Cyril Rosen, who believed if we could understand more about primates we would treat those in captivity better. A 45-minute stage show based on monkeys with seats decorated to look like a hillside forest did not become commercially successful, though the basement, converted in to a snooker club, was.
It was reading an obituary in the Islington Tribune in 2008 of Mick Risingham, a busker who had once worked in the café at the Scala, that kickstarted the book.
“After hearing about Mick, I wanted to contact former colleagues,” recalls Jane. “I wanted to let people know about Mick. He had been a valued friend and member of the Scala family.”
From here, she began collating the stories of late-night screenings, impromptu gigs, and blazing an alternative trail.
Jane grew up in Sussex and recalls being taken to Brighton’s famous independent cinema The Duke of York’s as a child to see a double bill of The Third Man and Brighton Rock.
At college, she was part of the punk scene – and travelled to the Scala cinema for all-night film screenings.
How Scala looked circa 1982
“You walked in and there were cats strolling about,” she says. “It was fabulous and I felt just very much at home.”
A few years down the line, Jane answered an advert looking for a programmer. “It was £12,000 a year. I was 23 and I was trusted to programme and help run this amazing venue.”
And what a varied and interesting challenge each month. “My job was to recognise trends, introduce new films into the mix that had the Scala film feel to it,” she says. “The audience helped programme the cinema – they knew what they liked. I would also experiment by putting certain films together.
“Films would come in like Withnail and I and they’d have been well received but had a really short run. We’d pick them up and we’d double bill it with others. Some films we would show 50 times, others just once.”
The screen would offer space to films that mainstream cinemas did not show – “The Scala was a cabinet of curiosities to rival those presented by 16th-century explorers, whose diverse collections of objects were arranged with equal importance in glass cases. Its ever-changing monthly programme was a treasure map.”
The Scala had themes such as The Golden Turkeys – the best of the worst of Hollywood – and hosted music nights too, with punk bands. It meant those who came in through the foyer were a snapshot of London at the time and a highly politicised youth culture.
“We were skint but gave cash to causes, boycotted South African grapes and wouldn’t use aerosol deodorants in case they destroyed the planet,” says Jane.
In February 1981, when reporters at the Camden Journal were on strike as they fought to save the newspaper from closure, the Scala put on a benefit.
The Scala was a place were these campaigns and battles could be played out and was reflected in the programming.,
Eventually the cinema had to close – not because of a lack of custom. The lease was running down and the owners believed the rent should go up. There was also the threat of a compulsory purchase order because of plans to drive the Channel Tunnel through the middle of the building. It meant long-term projects to raise revenue were hampered by a lack of security.
And now, thanks to the book, the Scala has been brought back to life. “I could not get the Scala out of my system and I knew there was a story in there, waiting to be told.”
• Scala Cinema 1978-1993. By Jane Giles, FAB Press, £75. Jane will be giving a reading at Burley Fisher, 400 Kingsland Road, E8, on December 20 from 7pm. Entrance free.