Stoke & Staffordshire

Clown and kit man: BBC film captures Neil 'Nello' Baldwin

Neil Baldwin
Image caption Neil Baldwin was given an honorary degree by Keele University in 2013

Speaking to Neil Baldwin, you would be forgiven for thinking him something of a Walter Mitty character.

His tales of joining the circus, becoming Stoke City FC's kit man, being awarded an honorary degree, and having a film made about him seem somewhat unlikely for a man who grew up with learning difficulties.

But there is one significant difference between Mr Mitty and Mr Baldwin. Mr Baldwin's stories are true.

The film - a BBC Two fact-based drama due to be released later this year called Marvellous - is itself the latest in a long line of the extraordinary events it documents.

It came about when the writer, Peter Bowker, best known for the BBC comedy Blackpool, read about Mr Baldwin in an article in the Guardian.

That piece was written by an alumnus of Keele University - where Mr Baldwin has been well-known on campus for the past 54 years.

Image caption Stoke City FC manager Lou Macari had to end a television interview when Mr Baldwin wandered into shot in a kilt

"I immediately felt compelled to meet him," Mr Bowker said.

"I have long been interested in how we use labels to limit the people we are describing - even, at worse, to dehumanise them.

"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," said Mr Bowker after meeting him.

Mr Baldwin, from Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, has links to Keele University dating back to his early childhood when his mother worked there as a cleaner.

First fascinated by the university chapel his mother cleaned, at the age of 14 he turned up unannounced in a college common room.

Now, at the age of 68, he visits nearly every day.

He is the manager, coach, kit man and captain of the Neil Baldwin Football Club - not the official university team - and until now has won Player of the Year every season.

However, his playing days are now over as he has had one hip replacement and is awaiting another.

Mr Baldwin even has an honorary degree for "offering advice and support to students and remaining steadfastly proud and loyal to Keele".

Image caption Actor Toby Jones, who portrayed Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, plays the part of Neil Baldwin

As a young man Mr Baldwin had an unskilled job in the Staffordshire Potteries.

But when a circus came to town in the 1980s - in circumstances that are somewhat unclear - he joined up as "Nello the clown" - a nickname he retained.

"I used to do an act where I threw an egg up to the top of the tent and got it to land and break on my head, used to get a great laugh," he said.

He parted from the circus when it was on tour in Scotland, and returned to Stoke-on-Trent.

The next stage of his career began when the then manager of Stoke City, Lou Macari, noticed Mr Baldwin waiting outside the club "pretty much every day".

The two became friendly, and Macari - who Mr Baldwin describes as "a very nice man" - thought he was so entertaining he would be good for morale in the locker room - so he moved him inside and gave him the job of kit man.

A filmed interview with Macari at the end of the 1992-93 season shows Mr Baldwin wandering on to the pitch, and in front of the camera, dressed as a Scotsman. Neither Macari nor the journalist can control their laughter.

"Neil was the best signing I ever made, worth his weight in gold," says Macari.

"All the players bounced off him and a lot of our success was down to the atmosphere he created in the dressing room."

Image copyright Stoke City FC
Image caption Mr Baldwin's friends say he "has no self-consciousness"

Mr Baldwin even played for the club in ex-England player Gordon Cowan's testimonial match at Villa Park - in a plan cooked up by Macari, the players and the referee. He was sent on five minutes before the end of the game as a 12th player.

He once dined at the House of Commons after turning up unannounced and putting a card through to Labour left-winger Tony Benn, simply saying that he was a friend of his son Stephen Benn, who was studying at Keele University at the time.

Mr Baldwin's friend, Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, said Mr Baldwin had "absolutely no self-consciousness".

He added: "It means that whatever Neil wants to do, he will.

"He has turned up at the houses of members of the clergy and they have invited him in for tea; if he saw David Cameron across the street he would have no hesitation in going to talk to him."

Mr Baldwin said his favourite meeting was with Prince Edward.

"I went to his room at Cambridge [University] and knocked on his door. I thought there would be policemen on the other side, but there wasn't.

"He invited me in and we drank sherry."

The film is described by producers as "the beautiful, funny, true story of Neil Baldwin, a man who confounds our expectations".

There are, though, painful scenes, showing Mr Baldwin's mother Mary trying to prepare her son for her death, making sure he would be able to look after himself.

Image caption Neil Baldwin worked as a kit man at Stoke City between 1991 and 1993

His mother made him move into his own flat and taught him how to go shopping.

Mr Bowker added: "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."

Mr Clarke recalls how Mr Baldwin once told a group of friends he was "really good mates" with former England manager Kevin Keegan.

"They humoured him but didn't really believe him," said Mr Clarke.

"But when we got to the ground there was Kevin Keegan with his arm round Neil chatting away to him like a long-lost relative."

He added: "People think he's a fantasist but he actually turns his fantasies into reality."

Image copyright Other
Image caption Neil Baldwin toured the country as part of Sir Robert Fossett's circus as Nello the clown

There can be a very fine line between telling amusing stories about someone and making fun of them.

But Mr Clarke said that when it comes to Mr Baldwin, that line is difficult to cross.

"Whatever happens, Neil triumphs," he said.

"And you can see it in this film, too - there is no doubt that Neil emerges as the winner.

"Everyone goes on about how Neil gets everywhere," Mr Baldwin concludes of himself.

"And he does. And I'm glad I do because it is a fantastic life."

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