As Jane Giles and Ali Catterall’s new documentary on the wonderful queer history of the Scala Cinema on King’s Cross in London is released, we look back at our own history of cinemas as queer hubs...
La Scala Nottingham
Nottingham did have its own Scala Cinema, which predates the London version. The cinema was not a dedicated queer space, but did become an unofficial meeting place - playing a part in how queer men met each other. It's hard to put a date on La Scala becoming a queer meeting point, but we can say it at least began with the screening of films that had queer topics in the early seventies.
Located on Market Street, the cinema had officially first opened as a skating rink and music hall. This would be replaced by the cinema. Cinemas popped up all over Nottingham during this time as it was a major form of entertainment - taking over from music halls and variety shows by the 1920s. Lots of the venues that housed such performances were converted, with the La Scala becoming a full-time cinema in 1913. It was eventually purchased by the Classic Cinema chain in 1964.
Although the law and attitudes were changing in the sixties, on the ground this made little difference. Men still struggled for places to meet or be intimate, often visiting cottages (public toilets) or outdoor areas such as the forests.
The cinema was a welcome change from outside spaces in British weather, seated and dark. While there were bars and pubs around the city centre, such as the Flying Horse, that had a ‘reputation’ for queer life, there was a huge pressure around not being caught.
Newspapers took great delight in naming and shaming those who were brought before the courts for ‘gross indecency’ or ‘breach of the peace’, often giving full names, occupations, addresses and details of anyone caught. The cinema was a far easier space to go to, as it was not a designated queer or straight space.
Queer film screenings
By the seventies, La Scala cinema had expanded into three screens, including one that screened adult films. Film tastes were changing as censorship lifted, with more B-movies and adult themes creeping onto the silver screen. La Scala was one of the first to screen films with queer themes, such as Fortune in Men’s Eyes in 1971.
Based on a play, the film is a portrait of the brutal side of prison life, along with gay male characters and drag queens.
Cinema for queer audiences wasn’t always as upfront about the sexuality or relationship of characters. Sometimes, LGBT+ people were left to apply a queer lens to the films they were watching, with some movies going on to cult status in later years - such as Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde in 1971. Jekyll begins obsessively searching for an elixir of life, using female hormones taken from fresh bodies, reasoning that these hormones will help him to extend his life, since women traditionally live longer than men and have stronger systems. It has the result of changing Jekyll into Sister Hyde.
Although there has been much debate over the years about how progressive vs offensive the film is today, when the film aired in November 1971, there would have been very little else available on such themes.
There are some films which appear not to have been screened at all, such as The Children’s Hour (1961) and The Killing of Sister George (1968), which both feature lesbian storylines. The latter appears to have been screened in the 1990s.
It’s hard to discuss cinema as a queer hub without talking about the contribution that Broadway Cinema has made since it opened in 1990. Queer-friendly from its early days, the cinema has always worked closely with the community, hosting screenings of LGBT+ films, workshops, events and launch parties, such as one for the Gay Aids Information Project (GAI Project) in 1994.
Fundraisers for many different queer organisations have been held there over the years, and the cinema itself was the focal point of the first ever gay pride in 1997. Some might argue that it still is, now that Pride is held on Broad Street again.
In July 2024, the cinema will host an exhibition on LGBT+ history, launching the first title of a new book from the Notts Queer History Archive.
In a nice nod to end this article, Nottingham does have a connection to the London Scala, as mentioned in the new documentary. A film club inspired by the iconic London Scala started as a pop-up across the city centre in 2011, aiming to unite film lovers, watchers, venues and cinemas across the UK.
This has included a Nottingham branch, which has hosted screenings across the city - including This is England, Bugsy Malone and Police Story.
Top image: The Scala cinema in London, the focus of new film Scala!!!. (Credit: BFI)
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