Stately pleasure-domes

Source: Steve Woolley, contribution to David Thomson, ‘Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably)’, The Independent, 17 April 1994,–stately-pleasuredomes-the-first-cinema-opened-100-years-ago-arguably-david-thomson-shows-you-to-your-seat-while-other-film-fans-name-their-favourite-picture-palaces-1370670.html

Text: I was fortunate to grow up in Islington when most of the cinemas were still running. I was mad about films. I’d go to the Odeon Angel and the Rex, which is now the Screen on the Green. My dad or uncles would take me to the ABC in the evenings. I became highly attuned to audiences and the environment a film was shown in. I rate it as highly as the movie itself. If you see Performance, as I did, at three in the morning at the Classic in Victoria, it’s not the same as seeing it on the box. It was one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and coming out and walking from Victoria to Notting Hill Gate afterwards was extraordinary.

There are no character cinemas in London now. Places like the Biograph in Victoria. It was 28p to get in and a huge gay pick-up. It was great, like watching a film in a Baghdad market. The toilet door kept crashing into you. They showed films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Then there was the Starlight, which just showed Thirties and Forties doubles. They used to serve cucumber sandwiches with the corners cut off – I’d never had them before.

At the Scala I strove to create an atmosphere, because that’s how I saw films when I was young. People say the Scala wasn’t great because not all the seats worked and the trains ran underneath, but who else would show Kenneth Anger films, or do proper late shows? It’s because of videos. People don’t seem to get it any more, they don’t want to see a film on a big screen. There was hardly a ripple when the Scala closed. It’s kind of sad.

The Screen on the Green has a really big place in my heart. I remember it as the Rex, a fleapit. I was forbidden by my parents to go there. Working as an usher there in 1976 was definitely the most exciting time. We put the Sex Pistols on – it was the summer of punk. And there were all-night Marx Brothers films. It would show Duck Soup at four in the morning. The first weekend I worked there the double bill was Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I’m being paid to watch these films three nights a week, I must be the luckiest person alive’.

There was an atmosphere in London then rivalling France and New York – movies were suddenly hip. I was going to the cinema on my own, thinking I was mad. As I was about to enter my twenties, I realised that all these other people were obsessed too. It was a great time. It was pre-Channel 4 and before BBC 2 got its act together. You really had to search the films out.

Comments: Steve Woolley (born 1956) is a British film producer, who was programmer at The Screen on the Green in Islington, London and managed the Scala at King’s Cross, London, before establishing Palace Video and then moving into film production (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game etc). This is one of a series of memories of favourite cinemas published in an article to mark the centenary of film exhibition (in the USA).


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