London’s Queerest Cinema: the Scala 1978-1993
In October 1978, barely a decade after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Scala cinema in Fitzrovia premiered Word is Out. It was the first documentary to present authentic lesbian and gay voices and was a game changer. In the same month, the Scala also launched George Kuchar’s deliriously camp low-budget melodrama The Devil’s Cleavage on an unsuspecting public. It was the start of a beautiful relationship that would lead to monthly screenings of the Scala’s best-known and most outrageous film, Thundercrack!
The Scala’s innovative new calendar programme format of June 1979 featured a week of films celebrating Gay Pride, which became an annual fixture of the cinema. The Scala also programmed a season for ‘September in the Pink’, London’s first lesbian and gay arts festival in 1983. By then the Scala had moved to an atmospheric old picture palace in King’s Cross, and amongst its daily-changing repertoire of arthouse, classics, horror and psychotronic movies was a riot of queer cinema. The films of John Waters, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Andy Warhol, Rosa von Praunheim, Almodovar and Todd Haynes were in constant demand, while Derek Jarman was a regular both on the big screen and in the audience for the Scala’s infamous gay movie marathon All-Nighters.
As part of this year’s Scalarama, the Curzon proudly presents a double-bill of two of the Scala’s most-often played titles. Rediscovered in 1987, the hazy, sexually charged Pink Narcissus (1971) was a revelation for cinephiles. Opulent and gaudy, dazzling in its good and bad taste, this surreal Genet-inspired film is a landmark at the juncture of the gay underground tradition and the gay porno industry. Supporting short Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger (1963) had a massive influence on pop videos and on a generation of filmmakers, including David Lynch.
As well as showing movies, the Scala hosted All-Night LGBT+ clubs which featured performers including Divine, Boy George, Lily Savage, Julian Clary and Jayne County, in addition to DJs and films. The Scala also used its programme to actively support and promote gay rights. In May 1984 it presented a benefit screening for Gay’s The Word bookshop, which had been raided by police. Over the years the Scala programmed benefits for Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and for OutRage! in its campaigns against Clauses 25 and 28. It raised awareness of ‘Operation Spanner’ (the criminalisation of consensual S&M) and fundraised to save gay free press The Pink Paper, which was being sued.
In September 1985 the Scala programmed a triple-bill of Douglas Sirk films starring Rock Hudson as a benefit for The Terrence Higgins Trust. It was the first time that the acronym ‘AIDS’ had appeared on the programme, and the Scala would continue to present benefits and programming in support of a community devastated by the advent of the disease with no sign of any treatment or cure yet in sight.
The Scala cinema was forced to close in June 1993 amidst a perfect storm of recession, an expensive lawsuit and, most prosaically, the expiry of its lease. So much has changed since then. A diagnosis of HIV+ is no longer a premature death sentence. We have the right to same sex marriage. The way that young people talk about gender has evolved. How audiences watch films is different. But I don’t think that anything has quite filled the Scala-sized gap in LGBT+ film exhibition. Showing on celluloid, this double-bill is a luminous if slightly scratched love letter to a different time.
Scala Cinema 1978-1993 by Jane Giles with a foreword by Stephen Woolley is published in September by FAB Press.
[Words by Jane Giles]
SCALA DOUBLE BILL: SCORPIO RISING & PINK NARCISSUS
As this year’s Scalarama screening, Curzon Enthusiasms presents a double-bill close to the heart of the original Scala, which was London’s leading LGBT+ cinema. Rediscovered in 1987, the hazy, sexually charged Pink Narcissus (1971) was a revelation for cinephile audiences.
Opulent and gaudy, dazzling in its good and bad taste, this surreal Genet-inspired film is a landmark at the juncture of the gay underground tradition and the gay porno industry. It’s paired here with Kenneth Anger’s short Scorpio Rising (1963), the influential leader of the pack for pop videos and a generation of filmmakers, including David Lynch.
We present Scorpio Rising on 16mm and Pink Narcissus on 35mm film.
Sunday 30 September 3.00pm, Curzon Soho.