SCALA!!! (18) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Jane Giles and Ali Catterall, UK, 2023, 96 mins

Review by Colin Dibben

Witty, wry and poignant, this documentary on London’s much-missed repertory cinema makes me wish I could walk back into that dark and cavernous shrine to cinema, to feel again some of the awe and the edginess of the place and the weird and wonderful films shown at bargain prices.

From 1978 to 1993, the Scala cinema was the very tarnished crown on the fast-shrinking head of London’s independent cinema circuit. Originally based on Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia, the Scala opened up in an iconic building in then rather seedy King’s Cross in 1981. The Scala featured a huge, dilapidated auditorium that was soon famous for its all-nighter shows of exploitation and trash cinema, and became a powerful magnet for LGBT+ and kink communities of all kinds.

This doc uses amusing and engaging talking head interviews with over 50 people to tell the story of the Scala and register its vibe. We hear great stories from staff and punters, from the likes of Barry Adamson, Mary Harron, Beeban Kidron, Stewart Lee, Peter Strickland, Cathi Unsworth, Ben Wheatley, Jah Wobble, Stephen Woolley and John Waters.

The Scala’s programming featured a diverse range of films, from high art to cult classics, sexploitation, horror, Kung-Fu – everything shown in rare, well-worn 35mm and 16mm prints. It is almost unimaginable today, but during the gentler daytime sessions, you could pop in at about midday and stay through 2 or 3 films for a pittance – it cost more to get to the cinema than stay there. This was the place to get a cinema education on the cheap, to gobble up classic films on the big screen, two or three at a time. If this doc emphasises the outlandish films shown, you could also see Hollywood and arthouse classics – in fact, they were the staple fare through most of the 1980s.

If you had time on your hands and were enjoying the ambiance, you could even sit through second and third showings. You might be one of ten people there but that’s good too, right?

I remember some guy bringing his own cans of film in – and a projector, which he set up in the auditorium – to show Richard Kern fetish short films. Walking in on the opening of the uncut Henry, Portrait of A Serial Killer and almost walking right out again. Following the resident cat up from the foyer into the auditorium. Watching street drinkers huddled by the screen waking up to the sensory overload of Paris, Texas’ desert scenes.

I’d have liked to hear more about how the Scala managed to survive financially all those years, but apart from that, this is a perfect feast of leftfield nostalgia. Who would have thought that you could get nostalgic for the Thatcher years? Although, given the current shitshow, why not?


SCALA!!! Is out in selected UK cinemas on 5 January and on BFI Player and Blu-ray on 22 January.