Marvellous. TV study of Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin is a feel-good story of our time

Marvellous is a brilliantly crafted and acted TV drama drawing on the eventful and engaging life of Neil Baldwin, who earned local fame in the 1990s as the much-loved kit-man and sometime mascot of Stoke City football team.

I nearly didn’t watch Marvellous [BBC 2, September 25th, 2014]. The trailers suggested it would be a Ricky Gervase meets Forrest Gump piece of fantasy about someone overcoming learning difficulties and becoming friends of the good and the great in the land. Fortunately, I discovered my misconception and watched a thoroughly enjoyable production with a remarkable core of fantasy wrapped in reality.

Marvellous: The Drama

The central character Neil Baldwin is played by Toby Jones, and is also played by Neil Baldwin. The Stoke football manager of the time was Lou Macari, who also had a walk-on role as himself and his ‘real’ involvement with the ‘real’ Neil Baldwin

Narrative tricksiness

This narrative tricksiness just about worked, as the story of Nello unfolded in its numerous unexpected encounters with a range of characters from Archbishops to cabinet ministers. The story tells how Neil Baldwin wins the interest and affection of many people he met from all walks of life, and who came to accept Nello’s designation of them as his friends.

As his remarkable network extended, his friends contributed to a wider range of exploits. At Stoke City, the Saturday football crowds chanted his name and cheered his cameo appearances as a mascot or in his clown outfit from an earlier job opportunity. At nearby Keele University, he become an unofficial ambassador and eventually manager of his own student football team.

The secret to Nello’s success

The secret to Nello’s success is easy to guess at, not so easy to pin down. Toby Jones portrayed him as someone blessed with an absence of irony. “I want to become a clown or a football manager” he told his concerned mother. “Perhaps best start as a clown then” she replied, with a little more irony.

I liked the anecdote of the Bible he kept as a sort of autograph book signed by his religious friends. When one cleric was invited to sign he was told “sign it at the back. The front’s for bishops and Archbishops”. And that turned out to be true.

The tale unfolded with various hard-to-believe events that were as much ‘based on a true-life story’ than we had any right to expect. Mostly they were played as evidence to disbelieving friends that Nello was not living in a fantasy world: confirmation of those bishops who signed his Bible at the front; a meal with Tony Benn after introducing himself at The Houses of Parliament; celebrities turning up to support one of his ideas publicising his beloved Stoke City.

Stranger than fiction

Since the broadcast, the news broke that the City of Stoke is to grant the honour of freedom of the city of Stoke on Trent to two distinguished sons of the City. One is its world-cup winning goal keeper Gordon Banks.  The other is Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin,

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