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13 January 2024updated 15 Jan 2024 5:14pm

The Scala was a place with no boundaries, our teenage sanctuary

A film about the cult all-night cinema and a memoir by my friend take me back: how motivated we all were, and how much fun we had.

By Tracey Thorn

I suppose it’s a terrible thing to admit, but when someone I know writes a memoir the first thing I do is scan the index for my name. I’m not sure which is worse – finding it there, or not finding it. No, that’s a lie, not finding it is definitely worse. Just before Christmas I was sent a proof copy of the forthcoming book by Richard Norris – musician, DJ and producer, who is one half of the successful electronic duo the Grid among other things.

I knew Richard when we were both teenagers, part of the local band scene that swirled around Hatfield and St Albans. At my girls’ school we formed the Marine Girls, and at his boys’ school they formed the Innocent Vicars. We’d attend each other’s gigs, and hang out at the same parties, and so of course I picked up his book, absolutely desperate to know what he’d have to say about me.

Reading someone else’s version of yourself can be nerve-racking, but Richard is very generous in his mentions both of the Marine Girls and of my previous band, Stern Bops. He describes me onstage “with her black Les Paul-copy guitar, black and white mod dress and Vidal Sassoon/Twiggy crop”, and honestly, I have no recollection of ever having looked that good but I am thrilled that in someone else’s memory I did. He goes on to remark that I seemed “slightly aloof”, preferring to perform with my back to the audience, and luckily he knows me well enough to put that down to shyness more than anything else.

Richard’s stories of those times remind me how motivated we all were, how industrious, how much FUN we had. I feel the same a week later when I go to see the new documentary film Scala!!!,which relates the story of the cult underground King’s Cross cinema. From the late Seventies through to the early Nineties it was a kind of sanctuary for the alternative crowd – most especially at the Saturday all-nighters, where you could camp out watching slasher movies, or something by John Waters, or Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. Unlike other repertory cinemas, it was a place with no real boundaries, where classics rubbed shoulders with trash, where nothing was forbidden. The aesthetic was punky and sleazy, the seats sticky and uncomfortable, the resident cat taken for granted.

I spent the night of my 19th birthday at the Scala, and my diary reminds me that Richard Norris was part of the gang there with me. It was September 1981, the Marine Girls played a gig at the Basement Club in Covent Garden and then we all went on to the cinema for the rest of the night.

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Between the front row of seats and the screen was a sloping carpeted area, and I remember us LYING there on the floor, all off our heads on something or other. Probably just a combination of cheap wine, menthol cigarettes and being 19. Up on the big screen ran a hallucinatory stream of old episodes of the Sixties Batman TV shows. And they were followed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a film which, I’m stunned to note, was only six years old at that moment.

The boy I was trying to get off with left at 4am, but I stuck it out till dawn, staggering out into the grimy morning in order to catch the milk train back to the suburbs.

Richard’s book is called Strange Things Are Happening, and the blurb on the back describes his story as “one of inspiration, collaboration and community, continually fuelled by relentless psychedelic curiosity”. You could say exactly the same about the Scala cinema, a place where strange things happened indeed. I think perhaps the funniest moment in the film is when you realise that the interviewee who used to run the café, (secretly selling speed tablets from under the counter), is the actor Ralph Brown, who played Danny in Withnail and I, famously rolling the Camberwell Carrot.

I hate to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, but sometimes, I have to admit, the old days were a right f***ing hoot.

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge