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Scalarama kicks off today. LSFF Director Philip Ilson was interviewed for the first Scala Forever brochure in 2011, to reminisce about his film education at this iconic London cinema. The interview is re-printed here as a celebration of the 2013 Scala season:

Can you recall the first time you went to Scala?

As a kid I loved films and went to see mainstream stuff with schoolfriends, but when I was around 16 my friend’s dad took us to the National Film Theatre to see the original 1950s INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS, which was a defining moment for me. Soon I realised there were other rep cinemas around such as the Everyman in Hampstead, the Electric in Portobello Road and the Scala in King’s Cross. It was the 80s and it wasn’t easy to rent non-mainstream stuff on VHS. The 50s were also ‘fashionable’ and I’d decided that Marilyn Monroe was cool, so my first visit to the Scala itself was to see SOME LIKE IT HOT. I actually remember it was double-billed with THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT with Jayne Mansfield, but we never stayed for that one, and I’ve still never seen this film. But as I hit 18 and 19, I discovered ‘70s cinema, and wanted to see every Scorsese, Coppola, De Niro etc. film there was.  

What are your memories of going to the Scala?

When you’re that age you think something has always been there and always will be, and that’s what I felt about the Scala. Going there now, the sweep of the stairs from the box office is pretty much unchanged, so memories do come flooding back. I also remember the trains shaking the venue as they sped underneath, and the saucers of milk for the cinema cat. And I remember sometimes being there alone, literally, with just a handful of other audience members dotted around in the cavernous dark. 

What’s your fondest memory of the Scala?

I remember seeing MEAN STREETS with my friend Richard, who was a schoolfriend, and we came out thinking we were De Niro and Harvey Keitel, breaking into Italian-American accents in the mean King’s Cross streets outside. I also first saw RAGING BULL at the Scala and remember being completely freaked out by a Polanski double-bill: REPULSION and THE TENANT – nightmares for weeks! I also saw FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (pictured above) there. When the venue re-opened as a club in the early ‘00s, I was approached by the then owner Sean McCluskey to put together four Sunday afternoon cinema events, under the name Scala Cinema Sundays – we screened FASTER, PUSSYCAT at one.

Did you go there to see a particular type of film?

‘70s cinema was my thing, and the Scala showed a whole lot of ‘70s cinema. It also showed more ‘racy’ stuff than other rep cinemas, so anything that looked like it’d have sex in it was worth checking out. So, Russ Meyer was on the agenda, and I remember seeing Gainsbourg’s JE T’AIME MOI NON PLUS (which I also screened at the Scala Cinema Sundays). But some of it scared me a little; I’d heard about PINK FLAMINGOS and THUNDERCRACK! and was a little worried that I’d be seeing something that would corrupt. I also read about the all-nighters, but they sounded scary too.

How important is to have a lively rep cinema scene on offer to the public?

In the ‘80s, home video was a major blow to cinema going, with many cinemas closing. As more varied films became available, it was easier to get access to different and older stuff, and you didn’t need to traipse halfway across London to see them. But that collective cinema experience is highly necessary. And cinema programming acts as a gatekeeper to the mass of cinema that’s out there, that’s difficult to negotiate online. 

What do you think is the future for rep cinema? 

Today it’s easy to see anything you want within a few seconds, as everything is available. But because of this rep cinema is more important than ever. London certainly has an explosion of rep screenings from the underground Scala-like nights of Cigarette Burns and Midnight Movies to the more commercial audience friendly summer outdoor screens such as Somerset House. Some of these latter screenings can be a bit obvious, catering to an ‘80s nostalgia of the target audiences mixed with recent big budget Hollywood hits. But the on-going success of the BFI Southbank proves that audiences want to discover lost cinema; the BFI Paradjanov season was one of their recent sold-out successes. It would be good to see the return of the double-bill matinees, which Curzon Cinemas only stopped a few years ago. 

What’s your favourite all-time double/triple-bill?

I distinctly remember a Russ Meyer triple, but not the later garish VIXENS films, but a superb programme of his earlier stylish black & white southern gothic films: LORNA, MUDHONEY and the mighty FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! Typical Scala fare, but highly memorable for little old me.

Philip Ilson is Director of the London Short Film Festival, Programme Advisor at Cork International Film Festival and Short Film Programmer and the BFI London Film Festival.

Scalarama opens tonight!