MY KINDA SCENE: Paul Cornell on A Matter of Life and Death

I have a very precise definition of what a scene is: a gap between two cuts. Honestly, therefore, the vast majority of actual scenes aren't that great, because it's the cuts that make the drama. (And most people responding to this article series have actually enjoyed a series of scenes.) But dear God, that's pedantic. What I want to tell you about is the opposite of pedantic.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a glorious modernist fantasy, from that moment just after WW2 when everything seemed possible. The scene (okay!) I want to describe is right at the top. David Niven is a British pilot, trying to nurse his burning aircraft back home. He's alone up there. He manages to contact an American radio operator on British soil, and starts up a brave conversation with her, to keep his spirits up before he jumps out without a parachute. But he's not for a moment going to let her hear him be anything but cheerful.

What people don't get about those 'stiff upper lip' scenes in British war movies is that much of it is true. All that's missing are the streams of swear words. It's a manner of speech that lets one function in the face of horror by denying it absolutely and feeling slightly better about oneself as a result. They got your leg but then they saw you joke about it. That mauling didn't even make you lose your cool. I saw it in my Dad, who fought in Burma, and insisted to me that it had all been a lark.

This connects to my own work in many ways. The blazing Technicolor imagery of the movie is something I hope to emulate, but above all, my Shadow Police books are about ordinary people thrust into huge situations, and dealing with a supernatural that both looms over them and is also very much about their world. You could say Peter and June stand for the millions of ordinary people wrenched out of their normal lives by the trauma of the war. In my novels, everyday London police officers find only they can see occult forces that are the 'memory' of their city, an index of the modern world, where we live in the ruins of the past without ever much understanding it. I make sure my heroes have no spells they can cast, only their training and character to save themselves. They make dark copper jokes about it, but we know they only do that because if ever they were to lose their composure then they'd have lost everything. I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind, there's always been that man in the aircraft cockpit, trying to use words to scare death away, only for the supernatural to swoop in.


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Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? is out now in hardback.

Paul Cornell has been Hugo-nominated for his work in TV, comics and prose, and is a BSFA award-winner for short fiction. He has also written some of Doctor Who’s best-loved episodes for the BBC, and has more recently written for the Sherlock-inspired TV show Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. He lives in Gloucestershire.

Find out more www.paulcornell.com and @paul_cornell.