If you watch one thing tonight, make it Marvellous. The one-off drama starring Toby Jones is just that.
For 90 minutes, BBC2 brings us Neil Baldwin, a man with a glass half-full and one hell of a story. Neil – who exists and appears in Marvellous alongside his portrayer (Jones) – has been a circus clown, lay preacher, Stoke City Football Club’s kit man and has an honorary degree from Keele University. He’s a friend of bishops, has connections among the sporting elite and once had dinner with Tony Benn in the Houses of Parliament. His philosophy? Happiness, and that’s exactly what makes Marvellous such a terrific, uplifting watch.
RadioTimes.com caught up with the drama’s director Julian Farino (also the man behind 21 Up) to hear all about “real Neil’s” quest for an MBE…
Neil has an incredible story – but no one seems to have heard it…
The beauty of it, for me, was that it was a true story but that nobody knew. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a great strength to be watching and say, “Really? That really happened?” It was a little diamond tucked away. And how nice to be able to do something that basically has a message of glass half-full. There’s a lot of dark drama around and I thought the idea of making something from a sunshine-y point of view was a good challenge.
There are moments throughout the drama where “real Neil” appears in shot. It’s an unusual move – what was the thinking behind it?
So you understand immediately it’s not a pastiche, cute version of a character’s learning difficulties. It has a very strong root in reality and that’s something both Pete [Bowker, the writer] and I – especially given it’s a true story – felt was very important. The story itself is heightened with all the crazy things Neil gets up to so we wanted to keep it rooted.
So, what is the real Neil Baldwin actually like?
He’s really what the essence of the script is. He is a force of positivity; he genuinely doesn’t seem to get too melancholic, he takes a glass half full attitude and his happiness was a guiding thing if things were tricky for us on the shoot. You couldn’t really go against the entire grain of the story and get grumpy: we always had to find a positive solution to everything. We were trying to make something that was capturing a person, an energy, a spirit and he became a part of that.
Did you feel the “Neil effect” on set?
You can’t be around him without somehow being affected. He has a great way of getting under your skin and people who have known him for many years will tell you that it’s just Neil, it’s how it is, and you can’t deny his force of nature.
You’ve also got former footballer and manager Lou Macari – Neil’s boss at Stoke City – appearing on camera…
Lou was incredibly helpful right from the beginning because he has a genuine affection for Neil. His fictionalised version was very heroic. He took a leap of faith in Neil, he saw something in him, and in many ways he took him under his wing and that is how the real Lou Macari is. You can’t speak to Lou without him having a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips when he talks about Neil.
How did Toby get involved?
You usually wait for some tense period of time when you want someone but Toby got the script in the morning and I think he’d signed on by the afternoon. We had a phone conversation and I learned that he had grown up in Stoke and his father, the actor Freddie Jones, was from Stoke. The whole thing felt ridiculously right and I really think his performance is incredible given it’s not a Shakespearean descent into madness. It’s an unusual part in which he finds an extraordinary range in humanity.
What was Neil’s relationship with Toby like?
He was endlessly asking Toby to be invited to his wedding which Toby repeatedly denied him. He knows how to ask, does Neil. He missed out but he still talks about it. He’s an unstoppable force. He tells me he wants an MBE so he wants to make sure the Queen sees his film.
Do you think Neil’s story is allegorical?
I think the beauty of the story for me was it’s meant to make us think about ourselves as much as Neil’s story. His basic journey through life has been, “Be positive, look for the best” and you’ll find it.
Marvellous is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2