Wednesday, 9 March 2022

The Marvellous Neil Baldwin is back to make us feel better

By Ian YoungsEntertainment & arts reporter

Image source, Jonny Birch/BAFTA/ShutterstockImage caption,
Actor Toby Jones (left) and Neil Baldwin with one of the Bafta Awards for their TV drama Marvellous

Neil Baldwin was taken to the nation’s hearts thanks to the Bafta-winning BBC film Marvellous, in which he was played by Toby Jones. He has now helped create a theatre version.

People who get their life stories turned into films and plays are usually celebrities or politicians or those who have done something particularly heroic or remarkable. On the face of it, Neil Baldwin is an unlikely subject.

He’s a former clown and Stoke City kit man who wasn’t well-known – at least beyond his Staffordshire home town – and hasn’t been at the centre of any daring or dramatic historical events.

But viewers who watched the heartwarming Marvellous in 2014 came to realise he is remarkable and heroic in his own way.

Media caption,
Toby Jones: ‘Neil has an inspiring attitude in seizing life’

They saw his uncanny ability to spread positivity and endear himself to everybody he meets, from students to archbishops to footballers.

They also saw how he always manages to get what he wants and keep going in the face of adversity, his learning difficulties anything but an obstacle.

“When I saw it, I thought, that’s a good film,” he says now. “The best film ever made. And I still think it is.”

Marvellous won three Baftas in 2015 including best single drama, and was also showered with prizes from the Royal Television Society, Broadcasting Press Guild and Monte Carlo TV Festival.

Since then, Baldwin has received other honours including the freedom of Stoke-on-Trent and the British Empire Medal for services to the community in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Image source, Andrew Billington

He now wears that medal everywhere, and has it pinned to the lapel of his jacket when he comes to Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic theatre to discuss the stage adaptation.

He has created the show with the venue’s artistic director Theresa Heskins, and it is finally reaching the stage after lengthy pandemic-enforced delays.

“Three times it was postponed because of the pandemic,” says Heskins, who has joined Baldwin in the theatre’s lounge during a break from rehearsals.

She says to him: “Every time I phoned you, I thought, how am I going to tell Neil?

“He made me feel better every single time. I’d phone him up feeling dreadful about it, and then I’d put the phone down feeling so much better – which is Neil’s special power.”

Image source, Andrew BillingtonImage caption,
The cast members take it in turns to play Baldwin in the stage show

The play will have its official opening night on Baldwin’s 76th birthday, on Tuesday, and he will occupy what Heskins describes as a “royal box” throughout its run. Some of his famous friends, from Toby Jones to former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, are expected to join him.

Lord Williams recently conducted a special service in Baldwin’s honour to mark his 62 years on campus at Keele University, where is mother worked as a cleaner and where the young Baldwin made himself a popular presence and unofficial mascot.

A far back as 1968, he was granted honorary life membership of the students’ union, and he received an honorary degree in 2013.

His love of making people laugh led him to join the circus as Nello the clown in 1980. His other passions include Stoke City FC, and when he introduced himself to new manager Lou Macari in 1991, Macari decided Baldwin would be a force for good in the dressing room.

He made Baldwin the kit man and described him as “my best-ever signing”.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption,
Baldwin with the Stoke City FC mascot before a game in 2014

“His real value was in helping the players relax before games,” Macari wrote in his autobiography. “No chemist ever produced a drug that could reduce stress levels like Nello. I was convinced that this gave us an edge in matches. Nello bonded the group.”

Baldwin has even run his own football club, named Neil Baldwin FC, at Keele University since 1967, asking the likes of Kevin Keegan and Gary Lineker to serve stints as its president. They agreed, of course.

Baldwin published his autobiography in 2015 and when they started work on the play, he and Heskins went through his life story with a set of actors.

“We’d say to Neil, ‘There’s this bit in the autobiography, could you tell us a little bit more about that?” Heskins explains.

“He’d tell us, then we’d try to re-stage that. While the actors were improvising, Neil would say, ‘I think I did that and I said that.’ And then we’d do those things.”

She adds, addressing Baldwin: “Always, whenever we wanted to get a bit serious, you’d be the person that would always be telling us, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if she had itching powder in her skirt now?'”

Image source, Andrew BillingtonImage caption,
Baldwin (right) with actor Michael Hugo, who plays the “Real Neil” on stage

The world could do with more of Neil Baldwin’s spirit-lifting powers. So what is his secret of staying upbeat?

“I just stay positive,” he replies simply, before recalling a conversation with a young friend whose mother had recently died.

“He rung me up on Christmas Day and said, ‘Why do you keep on being happy?’ I said, ‘Life is very short sometimes and you’ve got to keep happy.'”

Heskins has tried to dig deeper. “Remember that time I trapped you in the auditorium for two hours?” she says to him. “I wouldn’t let you out until you answered exactly that question. What is your recipe for happiness?

“You kept saying to me, ‘Just be happy.’ And I kept saying, ‘What if some people can’t? Offer me some concrete ideas.’

“You said, ‘Get a pet. Sing. Have friends.’ You said to me, ‘I know I live on my own, but I’ve got that many friends.’ And you said that’s one of the keys to being happy, having people.

“You have all those friends and you are lovely to them. You make people feel good about themselves by being so kind to them, and that makes people happy. That feels like your amazing recipe for happiness. And also laughing.”

“Oh yeah,” Baldwin says. “I always do try to keep laughing. Sometimes people do get upset. But you’ve always got life to live.”

Royal approval

Baldwin’s trademark positivity was justified when it came to making Marvellous. “Before the film ever came out, I said, ‘We’re going to London to the Baftas.’ [Writer] Peter Bowker says, ‘Don’t be a fool.’ I said, ‘You’ll be the fool if we win.’ And we won.”

That film opened doors for Baldwin to make even more friends in high places. A devout royalist, he recounts a visit to Buckingham Palace, one of his proudest days.

“William and Kate were there and William said to me, ‘You’ve won a Bafta haven’t you? What a film that was.’

“And I said to Kate, ‘What lovely children you’ve got.’ She said, ‘Thank you, sir.’ I turned around and said, ‘I’m not a sir till you make me one!'”

Marvellous made Baldwin something approaching a national treasure, and there’s still room for more gongs on his lapel.

Marvellous runs at the New Vic theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme from 11 March to 9 April.

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