Leonard here. My colleague Mark Searby is going to be sharing columns with us highlighting British cinema past and present. Please enjoy A Bit of Crumpet.

I have a quote on my wall from writer/director Guillermo del Toro that reads: 

“I think that you go to the movies for the reason that when you’re a Catholic you go to church. Because even though it doesn’t happen every time, now and then you have a spiritual experience. And the rare time it happens, it’s sufficient to keep you coming back.” 

And he is correct. Those moments in cinema that we treasure for a lifetime are just magical, maybe even religious. 

But what if not just watching the movie is magical, but the actual venue itself is some sort of cathedral to the movie?! I’m not talking about multiplexes. I’m talking about small, independent venues. Not just theatres but also town halls, a roof top or even a basement. Locations like that just add to the ambience of viewing a film on the big screen. 

But what if the venue was a fleapit of a theatre/cinema? Would you go? What about if this down n dirty place screened films that nobody else did, or even dared to do, would you still go? Chances are, if you are a cinephile, then you would. And that’s what Scala!!! Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World’s Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-Up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits shows us.  

This documentary is a love letter to London’s Scala cinema. A place that, as the documentary shows, was a coming-of-age-at-the-movies for a lot of people. Founded in 1979 by Stephen Woolley (who would go on to make films such as Mona Lisa and The Crying Game) on the Tottenham Court Road, just off the Soho area of London, and then two years later moved to its legendary home in Kings Cross. As Britain was coming out of the Punk years and entering the Thatcher Government that wanted to quash anything of fun for teenagers and twenty-somethings, Scala provided an almost illicit place to hang and see films that would horrify mother & father, yet excited the youth. Films that showed at the Scala and nowhere else including Pink Flamingos, Thundercrack!, Café Flesh and the majority of Russ Meyer’s output. It wasn’t afraid to show these types of movies. In fact, it positively revelled in it. Woolley was looking to replicate the Grindhouse scene that had risen up in the US, but also wanted to give it a UK slant. In came a lot of different types of movies and genres from high-art to Kung-Fu, from Sexploitation to LGBTQIA+, it’s programming was a veritable feast of the alternative. That’s thanks, in part, to original programming manager Jane Giles (She is also the co-director of this documentary alongside writer Ali Catterall). Who, as Giles discusses on-camera in the documentary, was open to anything and everything as to what they would put on the screen. It’s not just Giles who appears as a talking head to discuss the highs and lows of the Scala. Also appearing are writer/director John Waters, musician Mark Moore, installation artist Sir Isaac Julien, comedian Adam Buxton, director Mary Harron, international film critic Alan Jones, writer/director Sir John Akomfrah amongst others. All of these have gone onto great acclaim in their fields, yet they all remember their times visiting the Scala. And all have endless stories to tell. Possibly the one with the most stories/secrets is actor Ralph Brown. He worked behind the counter for several years before becoming a full-time actor and saw a lot of things… A LOT OF THINGS! One hilarious story from him is about how he sold drugs out the back of the counter. That’s what this documentary shows, that it was the type of place where sex, drugs and Rock N’ Roll were the order of the day while watching a film.  

But then came the tragic downfall. Without spoiling what happened, it’s was an almost fitting way for the place to get its licence revoked. Only that venue would be so bold and daring to do what it did, and try and get away with it. Many theatres/cinemas/venues would trip over themselves to be half as brave as what the Scala were doing. For all the highs the documentary shows about when the Scala was in full flow, the demise was simply tragic. A location that weirdos and misfits sought out to feel at home was gone.  

But fetishising the Scala seems strange when you take into account all the naughty, lewd and filthy stories that appear in this documentary. It didn’t sound like a nice place to visit if you weren’t a regular. However, thanks to this doc it almost becomes one of the places of legends. Like if you saw The Beatles at The Cavern Club before they became famous or you were at the Sex Pistols gig in Manchester 1976 when only 40 people were in the audience. Well, this doc shows what a good(?) time those who ventured through the doors of the Scala truly had. Sex in the upper balcony, a possible dead body in the office and a man who would shout randomly at the audience during the films. These and plenty more stories litter this absorbing documentary about the legendary cinema.  

SCALA!!! Is in UK/Ireland cinemas from 5th January 2024 | Out on BFI Player and Blu-ray 22nd January 2024. 

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