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Thank you for sending me an angel

Skellig: Sky 1
The Department Store: BBC2

Mostly, I prefer being an adult to having been a child; my childhood was often miserable, and I longed to escape it. One of the things I do miss is the ability to lose myself completely in fiction. The child who is reading truly doesn’t hear the words, “Your tea is ready!” But the adult who is reading always hears the shout, “I made this sodding gin and tonic for you eight hours ago!” however much they pretend not to.

When you’re a child, you can creep into books and hide there. When you’re an adult, your shopping list keeps inviting itself in – or the row you had with that woman on the bus. This is why I loved Skellig (19 April, 3.55pm), adapted from the children’s novel by David Almond. It wasn’t exactly that I got wholly lost in it, but it did remind me very strongly of what it feels like when that happens.
So, I can only assume that, for any child, it must have been bliss.

It was so beautifully done. Skellig, a strange, ossified man with wings whom a little boy called Michael finds in a derelict shed, is an angel, although this is never actually spelled out. He can fly and perform miracles. Making this kind of stuff work in a child’s head is relatively easy if you are a good writer, and Almond is a very good writer. But making it work on screen is bloody difficult unless you’ve an awful lot of cash to splash: creaky CGI, and your audience will just titter (the awfulness of a distant BBC production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe haunts me still; Aslan looked like he’d walked straight out of the Hamleys soft toy department).

Happily, Sky is investing heavily in original drama for its high-definition channel, so Skellig’s wings were a marvel – not attached, so much as grown. The scene in which Michael and his friend Mina washed his mangy old feathers with soapy water was so vividly real, that when he finally flew, something good happened to the pit of your stomach: mine flipped over.

And what a cast. Michael’s parents, distracted by the birth of their poorly new baby girl, were played by John Simm and Kelly Macdonald: generous, low-key performances that enabled Bill Milner (last seen in the movie Son of Rambow) to shine as Michael. Nine times out of ten, I can’t stand child actors – blaarrgh! – but he has one of those faces. It’s not just cute; it’s sardonic and wry way beyond his years, and there is just a hint of something weird and mesmerisingly Spockish about his eyebrows.

And then there was Skellig, rude, arthritic and slow-blinking. Inside his scaly face paint, Tim Roth played him like a homeless junkie, effortlessly heavy-lidded, as curled and as crusty as a stale croissant. When he plucked a snail off the wall and ate it with the same challenging delectation as some men display in attacking lamb’s kidneys, or a particularly stinky cheese, I let out an involuntary squeal. (Please understand: I am not the kind of person who indulges in involuntary squeals in my ordinary life.)

So: result. Right now, I must say, my television life is mighty enjoyable. Skellig and The Department Store in the same week! If you have not yet seen any of this last series – it’s on BBC2 on Tuesdays at 7pm, having first screened on BBC4 – I urge you: get on iPlayer and catch up immediately. It’s a series of hour-long films (the last of the three is coming up), each about one of those ancient family-owned department stores that you still (though increasingly rarely) stumble on in small and genteel provincial towns: old-fashioned, a bit cluttered, nice line in mottled nylon blouses and Farah-fit trousers, a place where you can definitely buy a pink dressing gown that looks as if it has been made from a few old bathmats.

These are sublime documentaries, mostly because they are as old-fashioned as the stores themselves, slow, dogged, gently unfolding, like short stories on celluloid. They will make you laugh. They will make you cry. They will remind you that, in some quarters, women still regard a panty girdle as an essential element of their daily kit.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?