SCALA!!! “A Whole New Experience”

SCALA!!! “A Whole New Experience” image

By Jane Giles

In this exclusive article for the King Street Cinema, SCALA!!! co-director Jane Giles remembers her cinema training at the Ipswich Film Theatre in 1988.

On Saturday 6th February 1988 Ipswich’s Evening Star newspaper ran a half-page story prosaically headed ‘A whole new experience in training at IFT’. I imagine that most readers rapidly passed by Tim Cowen’s report about the fact that the British Film Institute (BFI) had chosen the Ipswich Film Theatre (IFT) to host a new training scheme and that I was the successful candidate having beaten more than 100 other candidates to the job.

Alongside the article is a large photograph of 23-year-old-me posing in the projectionist’s booth, holding up a reel of 35mm film, running it through my fingers like an idiot. I can’t imagine the IFT projectionists would’ve approved; Peter and David (aka ‘Chief’ and ‘Boy’) both adhered to a strict procedural rulebook which determined the order and timing of opening and closing curtains, lighting effects, and no mucking around with the film reels.

I’ve got vivid memories of my time at the Ipswich Film Theatre which was in the town’s Corn Exchange building. I trailed around after the front of house manager Bernardo whose hair was as black as his uniform old school bow tie and evening dress, his nostrils seeking out the smell of weed during the dances. I tore tickets and watched Wim Wender’s sublime Wings of Desire every night for a week (I still love the film). I worked with the graphic designers on the fold-out programme. And I will never forget the agonised face of a young customer whose liberal mother had bought him along to see Chen Kaige’s King of the Children. And I learned a lot from the programme manager Karin Farnworth.

The Evening Star article continues, ‘By this time next year, Jane will expect to be fully equipped to run a cinema like the IFT, having studied everything from business management to how to work the projectors or be an usherette”.

The usherettes I remember as homely, no-nonsense middle-aged mums who told me that IFT’s small Cinema 2 had been built over an ancient burial pit and when on duty they sensed a child crying. You had to walk through the auditorium to get to the projection box and for some reason you never wanted to look behind you.

The article concludes, “[Jane] says she is not sure how her career will go after her 12 months at Ipswich, but admits that with training like hers the field is wide open”.

And then my dream job was advertised in the Monday media pages of the Guardian. The Scala was my favourite cinema in the world. I first went there in August 1981 during the school holidays, up from my hometown of Crawley with a bunch of punks from school to see a Saturday All-Nighter featuring the films of John Carpenter and Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. It was where I heard Joy Division for the first time, booming out of the intermission music system between the movies, filling that deep, dark auditorium with a powerful melancholy. I loved it all and carried on going all the way through college and university. The training placement at the IFT was key to me getting the job at the Scala, backed up by the fact that I knew and understood the cinema programme of horror, cult, arthouse, Hollywood classics, LGBTQ+, and to which I brought my own favourite titles and specialist interests.

My cousin recently sent me the Evening Star clipping, unearthed as she cleared her late parents’ house in East Bergholt. I’d stayed with them for a week or so before moving into a small flat opposite the museum. It was in walking distance of both the Corn Exchange and the swimming pool where I went with my BFI supervisor Mark Finch during lunch breaks to experience the joys of the pool’s new wave machine. Mark was a brilliant teacher who left the BFI to run the Piccadilly Film Festival and from there to head up a major LGBT film festival in San Francisco. His name is on the end credits of SCALA!!! for sad reasons, lost to depression and suicide from the Golden Gate bridge. The Scala documentary is full of ghosts, as articulated by our interviewees including the gay rights activist Paul Burston, and eloquent sound engineer Chris Watson (a founder member of the Sheffield electronic band Cabaret Voltaire and who went on to work with David Attenborough). Watson explains that a building’s atmosphere is made up of the sound waves from the audiences passing through it across the decades. For this reason, cinema new builds may be less atmospheric than old ones, like the Ipswich Corn Exchange (1812) or the Scala in King’s Cross (1920). But they probably have more comfortable seating and better sound than we did in the 1980s!

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