A Short (mostly true) History of the Scala – Sarah Hilary

Liz Nugent quote NEVER BE BROKEN

In the latest novel of Sarah Hilary's Marnie Rome series, NEVER BE BROKEN, Noah Jake’s favourite nightclub, where he and Dan drink tequila, is loosely based on the Scala in King’s Cross. Here Sarah looks at the history of the real-life club...

Posted on May 13, 2019 in Guest Author
Tags: Never Be Broken, Noah Jake, Scala, marnie rome, sarah hilary

London has changed a lot since I lived there in the 1990s (hell, it’s changed a lot since I started writing my DI Marnie Rome series, six years ago). One of the themes of Never Be Broken is how much it’s changed, feeling so newly alien and dangerous to men like DS Noah Jake, who was born in London and is struggling to police his home city.

In this blog, I wanted to write about one of my favourite places, from all those long years ago, when I was new to London and still learning its secrets.

Noah’s favourite nightclub, where he and Dan drink tequila, is loosely based on the Scala in King’s Cross. Like so many of the characters in my books, the Scala has a chequered past. Beneath its brash, newly neon surface, is a building that’s been home to drunks, lovers, zombies, hooligans, a cat called Roy, countless lonely hearts and caged apes.

Yes, really. Apes.

I knew the Scala when it was a cinema. For me, all cinemas are magical places. Like books, they open doors into other worlds. As a teenager, I’d spend hours watching double-bills in a pokey auditorium in Manchester, emerging like a newborn blinking into the dazzle of late afternoon, giddy on adrenalin.

What made the Scala special was its all-nighters. From 9pm on Saturday night until 9am on Sunday morning, for the price of a good cup of coffee in today’s money, you could watch film after film after film, in the company of anyone and everyone who wanted a warm home for the night.

All-Night George A. Romero. All-Night Alien-Blob-type-Things. All-Night Woody Allen. (That last one was a mistake; a little Woody Allen goes a long way.)

The Scala was my idea of heaven. With just a flavour of hell.

Because—what was that strange smell haunting the auditorium? Probably whatever the person in the row behind you was smoking. And the heavy-breathing soundtrack from the stalls? Couples who found Woody Allen inexplicably arousing (or just possibly they hadn’t come to watch the films). And what brushed against your leg at all the scariest moments onscreen? That was Roy, the Scala’s resident cat. His timing was terrifying.

Downstairs, things got even stranger.

If you wandered off piste, you’d find cages in the basement. Green paint slashed up the walls, peeling to bare plaster in places, but emphatically green. Were those… trees painted on the walls? And vines? Creepers?

Yes, yes, and yes.

At one time, circa 1971, the Scala was a blue movie venue, to use the old-fashioned vernacular. King’s Cross was notorious for that sort of thing but the business wasn’t lucrative, and new owners moved in. How to make money out of premises this size, in such a prime location? Where blue movies had failed, what might succeed? Apes, apparently.

In 1979, London’s first (and to date its last) ape-house opened its doors. With walls painted to resemble a jungle, the London Primatorium lasted only months before it went the way of its predecessors. The cages however remained, together with the fossilised droppings of the poor primates. Years later, film-lovers like me would wonder at that strange, warm, earthy scent that seemed to come up from under our feet. Forget surround-sound; the Scala had surround-smell.

(There was a glorious period in the 80s, sadly before my time, when the cinema’s clientele included Andy Warhol, Pasolini, Fassbinder and Derek Jarman, and the Scala acquired the nickname, ‘The Sodom Odeon’.)

The Scala cinema closed its doors in 1993. Rumours say it was sued into the ground by Stanley Kubrick for showing A Clockwork Orange once too often, and always in contravention of his ban on UK screenings of the film. An anarchic ending for a home to the strangest heroes. Like many, I was sad to see it go. When, years later, I was wondering where DS Noah Jake might unwind, dust the day’s work from his feet and get frisky with his boyfriend, the Scala sprang to mind.

Scala nightclub Wikipedia image


Luckily for me (and Noah) the Scala had reinvented itself, again. Cleaned out the cages, whitewashed the creepers from the walls, banished the zombies. But it still has its arms wide open for drunks, lovers, lonely hearts and the coolest of cool cats.

Sarah Hilary’s NEVER BE BROKEN is out now!


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