TV preview: Marvellous

Pictured Toby Jones as Neil Baldwin.
Pictured Toby Jones as Neil Baldwin.
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Often, inspiration strikes from the most unexpected places.

For award-winning playwright and screenwriter Peter Bowker (Blackpool, Eric and Ernie) it was an article in The Guardian from 2010 which was the spark to ignite his latest small-screen project. The paper had run a feature on a Staffordshire local hero by the name of Neil Baldwin, whose life plays out much like that of a fictional character already, making him perfect inspiration for the writer who’s as at home bringing real-life characters to the screen as he is made-up ones.

His story will sound almost familiar to fans of films such as Big Fish, Forrest Gump or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - the difference being, Baldwin’s tall tales are true. He has been, at various points during his colourful life: a circus clown; a lay preacher; Stoke City employee (manager Lou Macari describes him as his best-ever signing), close friend to leading sportsmen and senior clergy; and most recently, he was awarded an Honorary Degree by Keele University for the contributions he has made to campus life there across the last 50 years.

His role at the football club was, on paper, that of kit man. However, the truth is that he was a mascot and even a motivational force for the club - and he once even led the attack against Aston Villa in a testimonial match, despite not actually being an athlete.

Bowker’s dramatised account of Baldwin’s fantastical life stars Toby Jones in the lead role, that of a man who achieved so much, despite being written off early in life due to him having learning difficulties.

Bowker explains, “I have long been interested in how we use labels to limit the people we are describing - even, at worse, to dehumanise them. But Neil - despite being labelled and to some extent written off as a young man - struck me as a man who defied those who wished to define him”.

Taking a similar tack to his breakthrough TV drama, the Dennis Potter-esque Blackpool, Bowker blends gritty realism with musical and fantasy elements. “It struck me if there was going to be a drama about Neil then it had to reflect his fluid and eccentric story. It is, therefore, part biopic, part musical, part fantasy. It isn’t always an easy story. It isn’t sugar-coated, but I think it is ultimately optimistic and celebratory. And I think that’s important in this era where vilifying and writing off others has become something of a national pastime.”

Gemma Jones (Death In Paradise), Tony Curran (Defiance) and Nicholas Gleaves (Scott and Bailey) are among the consistently good supporting cast, while football pundit Gary Lineker appears as himself. Entourage director Julian Farino, who previously collaborated with Bowker on the award-winning BBC2 single drama Flesh And Blood, returns to helm this feature-length production, lending it a high quality sheen. Marvellous? You bet.


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