Friday, July 12, 2013

Closure of the Scala Cinema

So now the Scala Cinema is being mythologised as England's First Grindhouse Cinema and quite right too. It was a great experience being at a Scala all nighter, trying to watch the films and tune out the sound of the underground trains running underneath. 

However, as the Scala's legend grows so too no doubt will the legend of its closure for it is often reported that their screening of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange led directly to the cinema's demise. 

This is not exactly true. In the 1990s I was a regular contributor to the alt.movies.kubrick newsgroup and also the curator of the Kubrick Site (taken over from Geoffry Alexander). I caught quite a bit of flack from Michael Brooks for disseminating that rumour. Michael was I believe the manager of the Everyman Cinema in London and was an active poster on alt.moveis.kubrick and other movie fora in those days, as well as writing most of the entries for the IMDB which at that time was run out of Cardiff, UK.

Anyway, I archived the message which I have reproduced here in full.


From - Thu Jun 10 02:46:04 1999
Xref: alt.movies.kubrick:33391 uk.politics.censorship:9629
From: (Michael Brooke)
Newsgroups: alt.movies.kubrick,uk.politics.censorship
Subject: The Scala Cinema closure (was: Sex And Censorship)
Date: Wed, 9 Jun 1999 22:56:55 +0100

Klingsor wrote:

> In article, Michael Brooke writes
> (x-posted to alt.movies.kubrick to start yet another thread about how the
> Scala cinema was closed down after showing it ;) )
> The number of times I've seen that ludicrous claim mentioned in print
> (i.e. as opposed to Usenet) has nearly reached double figures!  If
> anyone wants to know why the Scala *really* closed, I'll be happy to
> tell them - but it's a long, depressing saga in which 'A Clockwork
> Orange' played a very minor and largely irrelevant part.
> This is something I've always been curious about; I remember the

> kerfuffle (sp?) when they showed in, and the appeal for money for their
> legal expenses (which I contributed to). Then soon after the cinema
> closed anyway when the lease ran out (or something).
> So what did happen?

Loads of things - in fact, it's a miracle the Scala survived long enough
to show 'A Clockwork Orange' at all!

But the main factors were as follows:


The Scala was located bang in the middle of one of the nastiest parts of
London - and a part of London that deteriorated noticeably over the last
decade of the cinema's life: it was a well-known haunt of junkies and
prostitutes (many of whom, I imagine, were Scala regulars!).  Regulars
like me didn't mind this, but it made it very hard to attract new
customers - all too often, unwary punters would travel across London to
see a rare screening, only to take one look at the inside of the cinema
and a typical Scala customer and vow "never again".


Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kings Cross was earmarked as
the site of the international rail terminal (which eventually opened at
Waterloo).  As a result, a huge chunk of the area was permanently under
threat of redevelopment, and there was a great deal of uncertainty as to
whether the building would survive more than a few years.


Throughout the 1980s, video hit cinemas hard - they only started to
fight back when multiplexes offering substantially higher levels of
presentation and service were developed.  The Scala had even more
problems on that score because the kind of sleazy exploitation films it
specialised in were increasingly going straight to video, with no 35mm
prints being imported into the country at all (that's a major reason why
the price of their legendary all-day all-night horror festivals shot up
in the late 1980s, because prints had to be imported specially).  And
this problem was compounded still further by the fact that many of the
prints of the Scala's staple repertory ('Thundercrack!' in particular)
were deteriorating badly, to the point where just getting them through
the projector was a real struggle - and these were irreplaceable.


The Prince Charles cinema changed its programming policy in the early
1990s, offering second run features for a knock-down price - typically
around half of what the Scala was charging.  This had a massive impact
on the Scala, because it meant they could no longer be competitive with
recent titles like 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' and 'Reservoir
Dogs': the Prince Charles was much cheaper and much more accessible.  It
also had better equipment - the Scala was notorious for its lousy sound
(if they were ever showing a 16mm print, it had to be something I
*really* wanted to see before I'd take a chance, as dialogue was all but


In the early 1990s, there was a substantial increase in the number of
foreign/arthouse/culty titles available on video.  It seems hard to
credit, but as recently as 1990 it was almost possible to count the
number of subtitled videos on the fingers of both hands.  By 1993 the
situation was dramatically different, with many titles that had been
Scala staples - Pedro Almodovar films, for instance - becoming freely
available from your local video shop.  And the economics were
unanswerable - even *buying* a tape was probably a better deal than two
or three people travelling to the Scala to see it, and the number of
titles that could *only* be seen at the Scala began to dwindle rapidly.


In 1992, leading British distribution and production company Palace
Pictures, which also owned the Scala (indeed, the Scala used to house
the Palace offices!) went rather spectacularly bankrupt, thus cutting
off any source of emergency funding.  In fact, Steve Woolley (ex-head of
Palace) used to come into the Scala and remove the takings in order to
fund the start-up costs of his new production company, ironically named
Scala Productions (which is still going, incidentally).


These were the killer blows - in early 1993 the Scala lost its
late-night party licence as a result of complaints to Camden Council,
thus removing one of its few reliable sources of income.  And in
September 1993 the cinema would have had to renew its cinema licence,
which would have meant a thorough inspection by the council.  A
conservative estimate reckoned that the place needed a million pound
cash injection just to meet minimum inspection standards, and there
wasn't a hope in hell of that happening (even the most eccentric
millionaire would probably baulk at funding a building in an area
threatened with redevelopment!).  So in June 1993 the Scala management
decided to cut their losses and close. 

Although it got more publicity than anything else the cinema did in the
last years of its life, the 'Clockwork Orange' saga was a fairly minor
blip.  The only genuinely negative side-effect was that Warner Bros
banned the Scala from booking its films between the screening in April
1992 and the trial a year later - which killed off the legendary 'Mad
Max'/'Blade Runner' all-nighters - but this was more than offset by a
vast amount of publicity: the Scala's image was boosted no end by being
described as this wild outlaw cinema that dared show 'A Clockwork
Orange'.  And in the event, they were fined the lowest amount they were
expecting, and had raised enough thanks to the appeals mentioned above
to cover it. 

So in the light of all the other things conspiring to close the Scala
down, the 'Clockwork Orange' screening had hardly any impact at all -
and I'd dearly love to know if Tom Dewe Mathews (the source of most of
the 'Clockwork Orange closed the Scala' stories: I've seen at least five
in print under his byline) ever bothered to talk to any of the Scala
staff before going into print.  My sources, for the record, were Scala
staff at all levels from management (including the general manager and
its last two programmers) to ticket-tearers - some of the ushers at the
Everyman also did shifts at the Scala, so were a useful source of

       a lavish tribute to the cinema's wildest imagination

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Horror Stories for Boys and Girls

I have just inherited  a copy of Boys' and Girls' book of the Year, 1935, published by Express Newspapers (full citation at the bottom of the post). It is a fascinating cultural document of the inter-war years. I will try to post a pdf of the entire book at some point. Anyway, flicking through the pages, I came across this gruesome cartoon.

The story is about a boy called Conrad who persistently sucks his thumb. His mother warns him if he continues to do this the scissor man will come and cut off his thumbs. It is part of a collection called 'StruwwelPeter' (Shock Headed Peter). According to the Wikipedia entry these were German children's stories by Heinrich Hoffmann. Each story contained a clear moral that demonstrated the disastrous consequences of misbehavior in an exaggerated way--I guess when they say exaggerated they mean as in a scene from Hostel.

Given that there is an ongoing moral panic about the potential damage of 'exposing children to violent media' i.e. videogames and the internet, I felt that it was salutary to remember that such a diet of horror is not a new development in relation to children. This observation (which has been made before) helps to counter the fear generated the the scholarly rhetoric of proponents of the media effects tradition. But what I find interesting is that these stories showed up in a British Children's annual, which demonstrates their diffusion outside of Germany.

Express Newspapers (1935) Boys' and Girls' book of the Year. London & Edinburgh: Morris And Gibb Ltd.

see more lurid images from StruwwelPeter here