Neil Baldwin has friends in high places. He exchanges Christmas cards with the Windsors and the Wales, calls in favours from Bishops and has impeccable connections in Premier League football. His gift for friendship has nothing to do with social networking as we know it; the mechanised sorting of virtual acquaintance is a poor, blunt instrument in the face of Neil’s singular, sociable charm. “I’ve always got on with people,” he says, in the soft, rich accent of the Potteries.
And it’s easy to see why. If people feel at ease with Neil, it’s because he is entirely at ease with himself. At 68, his face is kind and encouraging, unhardened by experience. Yet it’s a life packed with scarcely believable incidents and now Neil must make room in his crammed diary for the premiere of Marvellous, a BBC2 film based on his extraordinary life.
“I hope there’s going to be a red carpet,” he says, pleased – though not overly surprised – to find himself the subject of a biopic. Written by Peter Bowker and starring Toby Jones, Marvellous is a beautifully judged portrait of a one-off personality. The film tells how Neil, diagnosed as a boy with what would now be termed “special educational needs”, refused to be defined by his difficulties and how, with the support of his undauntable mother, he went on to fulfil his widely disparate dreams.
“I think there is something very interesting and positive to be said about a man like Neil,” says Bowker, a former special needs teacher, whose credits include Blackpool, Eric and Ernie and Flesh and Blood (the latter, a sensitive exploration of learning difficulties, won him the 2002 Royal Television Society award for best writer). “We’re in a climate where people who are different, or who might be perceived as disadvantaged, are often maligned. And I wanted to do something celebratory.”
Certainly the bare bones of Neil’s career path make a nonsense of orthodox profiling. A youthful obsession with the Burt Lancaster movie Trapeze led to an early career with Robert Fossett’s Circus (“Sir Robert Fossett,” puts in Neil), where he appeared as Nello the Clown. “It’s funny, really,” he says, “because when I was younger, I was scared of clowns – the make-up and that–but I just did it and I’m glad I did. Before that I was a butcher, cutting up meat, but I didn’t like it – too much blood.”
When he woke one morning in his caravan, in a lay-by, to find the circus had moved on without him, Neil, a committed Anglican, found his way to the nearest vicarage, dropped the name of several bishops and was escorted home to Newcastle-under-Lyme. “It wasn’t kind of the circus to do what they did,” he agrees, “but I got over it. That’s the main thing. And I still have loads of friends in the business.”
A career change was called for and Neil fancied a turn in academia; his mum was a cleaner at Keele University and he always liked the atmosphere in the college chapel. In 1960 he appointed himself as the university’s unofficial greeter and has welcomed generations of fresh-men to the campus – a pastoral role honoured in 2013 by an honorary degree from the university.
“I once asked Neil who the students thought he was when they first met him,” recalls Bowker, “and Neil said, ‘I may have been wearing a dog collar at the time.’ That’s when I knew that we had a film.”
Part of Neil’s remit at Keele is managing the Neil Baldwin Football Team (the university’s unofficial side) and, until last year, when he had a hip replacement, he had the distinction of being named Player of the Year some 35 years in a row. It helped that he was able to call in his good friend Gary Lineker to man the recruitment stall at freshers’ week, though Neil himself is something of a legend in footballing circles.
A lifelong follower of Stoke City, he door-stepped manager Lou Macari in 1992 and secured the post of kit man and team mascot. Macari claims it was his “best-ever signing” and clearly Neil’s passionate commitment and sense of mischief did wonders for team morale; on one occasion he dressed as a Scotsman and flashed his sporran (worn under the kilt) on national TV; he would appear on the subs’ bench in a chicken suit or stalk the sidelines, in top hat and tails, as “Lord Baldwin of Keele”.
The same lordly aplomb served Neil well when, finding himself with an hour to spare in London, he presented himself at the House of Commons and was invited to tea with Tony Benn (Benn’s son, Steve, was a friend from Keele University, and that was all the introduction Neil required). On a visit to Cambridge, Neil seized the moment and paid a surprise call on Prince Edward, then an undergraduate at Jesus College.
“He’s a very nice man, Prince Edward,” he confides. “I like the royals. Every Christmas and every birthday of the Queen, I send her a card and I always get one back, I get them from Prince William and Kate and baby George, too, but Prince Edward’s the best one I’ve met. I just knocked on his door – I thought the police would be there, but he opened the door – and showed him some letters that his mum had sent and he invited me in for sherry.”
Neil’s legion of very good friends have been warmly supportive of Marvellous. In fact, Gary Lineker and Lou Macari appear as themselves in the film: “I think,” says Bowker, “that, in the nicest possible way, they wanted to keep tabs.” They needn’t have worried. Toby Jones turns in a brilliantly nuanced performance as Neil (an opinion Neil generously endorses, though he would have preferred Rowan Atkinson or Sir Bruce Forsyth in the role).
Moments when the narrative is suspended for scenes, largely unscripted, between Toby-as-Neil and Neil (playing himself ) are particularly moving. “I wanted to honour Neil’s presence and have him in the film as himself, but at the same time, I think playing yourself is virtually impossible, for any actor,” says Bowker. “Also, as a writer, you want to get to the heart of your subject and the question at the heart of this show is ‘Who is Neil?’ He is this amazing Zelig- like character. Everyone thinks they know him and everyone has a different story.”
Marvellous amply fulfils its celebratory brief. There are glorious, stand-up-and-cheer moments, such as the re-creation of the 1993 testimonial match between Stoke City and Aston Villa when Neil was brought on as a 12th man and shepherded, with dazzling skill and tact, to the penalty area for a shot at goal. And there are scenes, such as when Neil’s mum, Mary, attempts to prepare her adored son for life without her, which catch the viewer squarely in the throat. (Neil learnt to manage very well; he has his own flat, and 19 budgies for company). “When we were shooting Mary’s funeral, we were, of course, concerned about the effect on Neil,” says Bowker. “In the event he was practically the only person in the room who wasn’t in bits.” “Well no, I wasn’t,” affirms Neil. “I cried before she died. And then I thought, ‘I’m not going to cry any more.’ So I was really happy sitting there and seeing that ugly Toby Jones say nice things about my mum.”
When 27,000 Stoke fans filed into the stands to sing “There’s only one Neil Baldwin” for the film’s finale, the crew were once again swallowing hard. Neil, for his part, expected nothing less. “I’d put the word out with some friends,” he explains, airily. He admits, though, to being touched when fans, many too young to remember Nello in his Stoke glory days, rose from their seats as he passed on his “walk of fame”.
Bowker is braced for comparisons with Forrest Gump, the 1994 movie in which Tom Hanks plays an influential man with learning difficulties: “I’m not a great fan of Forrest Gump, but I thought there might be something to reclaim from the same territory.”
In fact, any such comparison is wholly flattering to Marvellous, and, more importantly, to Neil. A lifelong Labour man – he once sold a rag mag to Harold Wilson – Neil has a strong sense of social injustice beyond Gump’s home- spun politics: “There are children eating out of bins in Stoke,” he expostulates. “Out of bins!” And he has no great opinion of David Cameron: “Can’t trust ’im. Didn’t he say England would win the World Cup?”
With his snug pinstripes (“It’ll be an evening suit for the premiere”) and magisterial presence, Neil is every inch the public philosopher.
“It’s good they’ve made a film of me,” he says. “I hope it shows people that you can do what you want with your life, if you keep at it. Most people,” he says, stabbing the air for emphasis, “are very nice. And if someone isn’t nice to you, a nicer person will come along soon enough. You just need to have the nerve to trust them.”
Marvellous in on tonight at 9.00pm on BBC2