Scala!!! (2023) – Documentary Review


By Sarah Morgan

London’s King’s Cross area was not a nice place to be during the 1980s. Rundown, frequented by ne’er-do-wells and generally unwelcoming, it wasn’t somewhere that was front and centre on any tourist information leaflet.

But for those in the know, there was an oasis of hope and pleasure – the Scala cinema. Founded in the late 1970s by Stephen Woolley, who’s now a renowned producer of movies such as The Crying Game, Mona Lisa and Little Voice, it started life in the West End before moving to a corner near King’s Cross railway station in 1981.

SCALA-Documentary-ReviewIt became the capital’s answer to New York’s grindhouse cinemas, the places that would show movies you were never going to see at your local fleapit, even in the days before glossy multiplexes appeared everywhere. David Lynch’s Eraserhead was shown at the Scala, as were the films of John Waters and Russ Meyer.

“All nighters”

All-nighters also took place, with some clubbers and gigging bands even paying for a ticket so they could sleep in the stalls rather than either trek home or splash out on an expensive hotel.

It eventually closed in 1993, effectively shut down by the actions of someone who should have applauded the place – director Stanley Kubrick. He took umbrage when the Scala showed his then-banned film A Clockwork Orange, and urged Warner Bros to sue. They did, won their case, and the costs bankrupted the cinema.

Jane Giles was in charge of programming back then, so is the ideal person to co-direct this celebratory documentary alongside Ali Catterall. It’s a heartfelt insight into a place that became far more than simply somewhere to see movies – it was a refuge for those living on the margins of society, who often found a community of likeminded souls within its walls.

Some of them have since gone on to become famous themselves, and several appear to wax lyrical about somewhere they clearly still miss. The directors interviewed 50 people, including the aforementioned Waters, who’s always good value, no matter who or what he’s talking about. He describes the Scala as “a very secret club, like a biker gang or something.”


“Amazing recollections”

Ralph Brown, who’s best known for playing Danny the dealer in Withnail and I, is another highlight, discussing his time on the staff; he tells a particularly good anecdote about meeting a pre-fame Boy George while working in the on-site cafe. Look out too for Adam Buxton, Jah Wobble, Stewart Lee, Cathi Unsworth and screenwriter David McGillivray; the latter’s work with low-budget horror directors Norman J Warren and Pete Walker would have fitted into the Scala’s oeuvre perfectly.

Lovingly constructed and packed full of amazing recollections, this is a wonderful, touching work – now, after watching it, I feel sad that I never went there myself. Perhaps I’ll have to pay a visit to one of the regularly-held Scala festivals, where attendees old and new attempt to recapture the place’s spirit.

As ever with BFI releases, the disc is packed with special features, including an audio commentary by Giles and Catterall, various shorts and items from the Scala archive.

Special features
  • Audio commentary by directors Jane Giles and Ali Catterall
  • Scala Interviews (2022, 60 mins): previously unseen bonus footage shot for the film
  • Scala (1990, 35 mins): a portrait of the cinema made for Cable London
  • Scala Cinema (1992, 4 mins): student film shot at the Scala
  • Shorts shown at the Scala (1989-1991, 60 mins): a selection of short films seen at the cinema: Relax (Christopher Newby), Flames of Passion (Richard Kwietniowski), and Coping With Cupid (Viv Albertine)
  • Animations by Osbert Parker (2022-2023, 4 mins total)
  • Cartoons by Viz artist Davey Jones (2022, 3 mins)
  • BFI London Film Festival introduction featuring cast, crew and audience participation (2023, 13 mins)
  • Scala Programmes 1978-1993 (2023, 12 mins): a closer look at 15 editions
  • Cabinet of Curiosities (2023, 18 mins): a guided tour of ephemera, photos and clippings from the Scala archive
  • Trailer
Scala!!! is released on BFI Blu-ray, BFI Player & digital

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