Did this year’s freshers at Keele University get together in the union bar last night to watch Marvellous?
I hope so. That would be very much in the spirit of Neil Baldwin, subject of this BBC2 film, honorary graduate of Keele, gatecrasher, blagger and “very nice man”.
A feature-length biopic, starring the excellent Toby Jones as Baldwin, is itself just the latest extraordinary event in Baldwin’s life story. He has been Nello the Clown in a touring circus, kit man and mascot for Stoke City FC and a beloved part of the Keele community for more than 50 years – despite being neither a student nor an employee at the university. Once he turned up uninvited at the Houses of Parliament and ended up sitting down to dinner with Tony Benn. These events all featured in the film, as well as portraits of the more fundamental relationships in Baldwin’s life – with his mother, his lifelong friend Malcolm and the Church of England.
Part of the secret to Baldwin’s success is his simple, un-self-conscious nature, which Marvellous resisted labelling as “learning difficulties”. Not just out of PC caution, but because to do so might seem to diminish Baldwin as an individual character – and that he is, above all. After a scene in which Neil had been subject to some verbal abuse from an oafish Stoke City footballer, there was a pause in the action for Toby Jones (still in character) to ask the real Neil about his experience: “Didn’t you think he was picking on you because of your difficulties?” asked TV Neil “What difficulties?” came the smiling reply from real Neil.
These surreal touches – there were also musical interludes and colourful intertitles to introduce each escapade – are what stand between Baldwin and the fate of Forrest Gump-ification. Like the Tom Hanks character, he’s a Christian man, whose simple view of the world might seem to reveal a kind of holy wisdom. Unlike the Tom Hanks character, Neil Baldwin is a real, still-living person. The triumph of Marvellous is that it’s a feel-good film that feels good, not through any Hollywood schmaltz, but through the sheer force of Baldwin’s own optimistic personality. In his words: “I’ve always wanted to be happy so I decided to be.”
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