Last Of The Crazy Houses
Not long ago I went to a place called Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining town in one of the northernmost points in the Arctic Circle. You have to carry rifles because of polar bear attacks, and the temperature reaches minus 40 degrees. The icy wasteland has kept the deserted settlement intact, and there’s a cinema that still has a frozen arrangement of flowers in the lobby. In the projection booth I found thousands of feet of film, some from classic Russian movies, some from trashy propaganda shorts. It felt like stumbling upon a cinematic secret nobody else knew about.
It was, in a strange way, like the Scala cinema in London’s King’s Cross, where I live.
I had worked just opposite its original incarnation on Scala Street in the West End, and saw a film that came to typify the uniqueness of the whole venture; Eraserhead. It was unashamedly arthouse, tastelessly perverse and enigmatic, haunting and disgusting in equal measure.
When the Scala shifted to its new home in the unloveliest corner of KX (to use its gang name), we audience members had our loyalty tested. King’s Cross was a lawless border town, the home of red-tape-bound Camden Council and an awful lot of whores, a former royal spa that had somehow ended up having a roller coaster built in its station forecourt. Left behind by a confluence of railway lines, dead ends and derelict warehouses, it existed as a handful of rundown streets full of alcoholic transients, and catered for all tastes. But it had its useful side; it was the only place in North London where you could buy tomorrow’s papers at midnight (they were being dropped off to the trains). The penny arcade behind the Scala provided warmth and succour for a fleet of nylon-clad, acne-ridden rent boys and their Hogarthian clients. Around the back of the station the local ladies of the night, affectionately known as ‘sploshers’, operated out of a vacant lot nicknamed Pleasure Field.
A night out here was likely to end with someone being robbed or reduced to tears, in an area where chivalry meant holding your girlfriend’s hair out of her eyes while she was sick.
There were other rep cinemas we could frequent which were much nearer to Piccadilly. The Roxie in Wardour Street specialised in showing incredibly boring double bills that appealed to surfers and hippies, like ‘Crystal Voyager’ and ‘The Valley Obscured By Clouds’, and other films without plots or dialogue that appeared to have been shot in slow motion. I smoked my first joint here during the awful ‘200 Motels’, not knowing that you were meant to pass it on. All I remember about the film is that there was a dwarf dressed like Aladdin.
As the rep houses vanished we were reduced to considering rare double bills at the Biograph in Victoria, providing we could find a way to fend off gentleman callers when the lights went down.
The Scala won us back because, behind the selection of films that appeared to have been chosen with a blindfold and a handful of darts, we could tell someone was trying to shine lights into the corners of the cinematic universe that most people wouldn’t venture into without attack dogs.
Once of the worst things you could do in the eighties was take a date to the Scala, especially if it was a Frank Henenlotter double bill or Taxi Zum Klo, a film in which a jilted lover comes home to find his other half having sex with a stranger and responds in a way that was relatively unfamiliar in Hollywood mainstream films, ie. he watches them and has a top-quality wank.
It wasn’t just the films that caused issues for prudish newbies; it was the audience. I recall walking into the notorious circle with Mark Kermode, who sniffed the air and said, ‘It always smells like fucking in here.’ Actually I think it was just the creeping damp, but I know what he meant. Just because you couldn’t see someone doing it didn’t mean they weren’t. In a time when much of the sex going on in London could best be described as ‘furtive’, the Scala was openly and thrillingly hedonistic in a now-wipe-your-hands-on-the-curtains way.
Around the corner we had been raising money for the striking miners at the Bell tavern alongside Derek Jarman and Tilda Swinton, so it made sense to dive into the Scala afterwards and sit through a banned East German film or Montenegro, Dušan Makavejev’s delirious feminist fable which featured a woman sitting on a remote-controlled toy tank with a dildo replacing its gun.
It wasn’t all shock, of course. While it was possible to see early classic monochrome films and world cinema taken seriously on a big screen at the National Film Theatre, it wasn’t as much fun. The NFT was housed in a building designed to punish people for liking films. It had a meeting area that looked like the bar of a German cultural collective and an auditorium with no centre isle, so that in order to take a bathroom break you had to squeeze past at least twenty tutting people in goatees and cardigans. The consequence of this was that you’d become paranoid about needing a wee halfway through a four hour Russian meditation on goats and would barely be able to concentrate on the film. The audience generally consisted of autistic loners and art teachers on their afternoons off.
The Scala raised money for political causes and operated in the community at a grass-roots level. It opposed censorship and helped to fund a broad spectrum of charities, raised awareness and brought together wildly different tribes through a common love of film. It took film seriously and took all films seriously, something which would have horrified the NFT. It recognised that a film can be appallingly made and still hold great truths. Although finding the truth in Thundercrack! is a little more challenging, you could at least gloss over the boring bits by eating, getting drunk, flirting or having actual sex. And you couldn’t do that at the National.
The Scala was an example of the kind of institution that has now all but vanished, a glue holding different sections of society together, like a temperance hall, a meeting-house or a pub. Although it inevitably followed a left agenda, its only rules were respect for others and acceptance of all. It’s still there, but is now a club venue rented out by different promoters. I miss the old place.