At the moment it does seem that we’re a little bit awash with TV drama biopics. Whilst Sheridan Smith is currently singing her way through the Cilla Black story on ITV; BBC2 recently offered up Castles in the Sky, the tale of Robert-Watson Watt’s creation of radar. It’s to BBC Two we turn once again for another biographical tale but this time it’s about a man that many will never have heard of. Marvellous is the story of Neil Baldwin; a man born with learning difficulties who went on to become a fixture at Stoke City and later received an honorary master’s degree at Keele University.
As Neil Baldwin isn’t the most traditional subject of a biopic, writer Peter Bowker makes sure that Marvellous is anything but your standard biopic. In fact Marvellous’ very first scene sees the real Neil Baldwin sitting next to the actor who portrays him, Toby Jones. Throughout the piece Baldwin appears as he attempts to answer Jones’ questions about if he was nervous about his first day at Keele or if he was hurt by some of the insults thrown at him by Stoke City players. This method is similarly employed when former Stoke manager Lou Macari pops up to talk to actor Tony Curran about why he decided to hire Neil as the club’s kit man. Additionally there are lots of fantastic musical sequences most of which are provided by the excellent Raise Your Voices Choir. They perfectly illustrate the tale with songs from Neil’s life including the Stoke City theme ‘Delilah’ and the closing number, a more melodic version of the football chant ‘There’s Only one Neil Baldwin’.
Although his lead character clearly has learning difficulties, Bowker never makes this Neil’s defining trait. An earlier scene, in which the dialogue is replaced by singing, sees Neil’s mother having an angry exchange with a teacher who is informing her of her son’s capabilities. But Bowker makes it clear that Neil is capable of many things whether that be gatecrashing parliament or making himself part of The Boat Race. The colourful title cards that precede every part of Neil’s journey are another wonderful little touch that add to this joyous tale. From bringing joy to many families as Nollo the Clown to listening to the worries of many Keele students; Neil’s life is covered in a breezy fashion by Bowker. Bowker’s main focus is Neil’s time at Stoke City and the way in which he got both the fans and players to like him. Neil’s penchant for dressing up often lifts spirits as he spends the whole day dressed as a chicken and later usurps one of Lou’s interviews whilst donned in Highland garb. The relationship between Lou and Neil is incredibly sweet-natured as the former realises just how much he can learn from the latter.
The other relationship that Bowker is keen to focus on is the one between Neil and his mother Mary the latter of whom always worries that her son won’t be able to cope without her. From the moment he arrives back from the circus, Mary is concerned that Neil’s life will fall to pieces without her constant intervention. Although he eventually moves out of her house, his new abode is a flat a couple of doors down from her which allows her to still carry out most of his chores. Additionally her worries appear to be warranted when Neil is revealed to have run up a large electricity bill in order to keep his birds warm. Even though Mary is constantly warning her son that one day she won’t be around any more, the constantly enthusiastic Neil often brushes these comments off. Therefore it makes her death that more powerful especially as its the only moment in Marvellous that our happy protagonist breaks down in tears. This scene is beautifully realised as Neil struggles to get the tears out before finally completely breaking down due to the loss of his mother.
At the heart of Marvellous’ success is a fantastic central turn from the brilliant Toby Jones. Usually cast as a supporting actor, Jones is a great leading man and expertly conveys the small nuances of the character. Jones’ portrayal of Neil is as a man who never lets his disability define him and instead tries to be as happy as possible whatever the situation. The fact that Jones is sometimes accompanied by the real Neil demonstrates how brilliantly he has captured the lead character’s mannerisms. Furthermore Jones adds a likeability to the character which makes it easy for the audience to understand why so many people were willing to give Neil the time of day. Gemma Jones, no relation to Toby, is fantastic as Neil’s panicky mother Mary who paints her face with a concerned look for the majority of the drama. Both Toby and Gemma have a great chemistry and therefore their scenes together are a joy to watch as they convincingly portray an unbreakable mother and son unit. It’s this chemistry that makes Mary’s eventual death so heartbreaking as the actors have done a brilliant job at portraying how much she meant to Neil. Excellent support is provided by Tony Curran as Lou Macari and by Greg McHugh as Neil’s loyal friend Malcolm.
I enjoyed Marvellous on a personal level due to the fact that I grew up in the same area as Neil. It was great recognising plenty of the buildings that the characters walked by and some of the lines of dialogue rang true; especially Neil’s joke about Port Vale. At the same time Marvellous wasn’t a perfect drama and at times I felt the pace lagged massively. I find this is a problem with most made-for-TV films in that they have to be a certain length in order to fit into a certain slot in the schedules. If Marvellous had lost about fifteen minutes then it would’ve been much better but instead it became a baggier ninety minute film.
But, despite these issues, I greatly enjoyed Marvellous due to the fact that I had a big smile on my face throughout most of the drama. I felt the narrative style of the piece was as unique as the lead character and I really enjoyed the musical interludes. Toby Jones’ central performance was fantastic and I felt the end of the drama was truly joyous. Whilst Marvellous may not have been completely marvellous it was nevertheless a heart-warming piece that restored my faith in the human spirit.
What did you make to Marvellous? What did you make to Toby Jones’ lead performance?
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