Published: 26th September 2014

 Its an interesting time. How many people have their life story made into a film?

Neil Baldwin is happy to be one of the few. Marvellous, the story of his life, is on BBC2 tonight at 9.00 p.m.

Neil greets me with a handshake at the door, and we walk into the living room. Theres a symphony of cheeping, with budgies and canaries everywhere, some in a cage, others perched on doors and furniture. On the walls are bright but fading circus posters Barnesys, Zippos, Uncle Sams and the television is turned up loud to compete with the birds.

Neil tells me about the premieres, one in London with 400 people, and one in Stoke with 250, and his walks along the red carpet. It was very nice to see old friends again he says, reeling off a list of clergy, politicians, and sportsmen. Shouting to make myself heard, I ask him about Toby Jones, the actor playing Neil, and he speaks highly of him, all the cast and crew, pulling down a scrapbook to show me. The BBC presented it to him, full of memories and pictures from production of the film.

So who is he? Stoke City kit man, clown with Billy Smarts circus, part of the furniture at Keele University for half a century, Neil Baldwins life seems to defy definition. Journalists have tried: a Walter Mitty with true storiesKeele Universitys mascot.

Above all, Neil is a Christian.

Every morning I get up and pray. Prayer is the best gift you can have. I ask him whether his faith comes through in the documentary and he smiles. My friends who came along to the premiere said youve put God in it first and thats it how should be. Sometimes Christianity is not portrayed very well. If youve got no Lord, you are lost. God is always working in me, and through all the people that Ive met.

Where do you go to church? he asks. I tell him, and he shoots straight back Your curates leaving, isnt he? Hell be missed. And a very good cricketer.  With unerring detail, Neil proceeds to tell me a history of comings and goings from my church over the years.

His passion for the church is as remarkable as his knowledge of the diocese. Every year, Neil attends the ordination services in the Diocese of Lichfield, and writes prayer cards for them all.

I became a Christian because of a Church Army mission in Chesterton in 1957. I thought Ill give my life to the Lord and thats what I did. Ive been at Keele since 1960, and seen many bishops come and go.

I told Jonathan hed be the next Bishop of Lichfield. He just laughed. 

Weve been talking for about twenty minutes, and a budgie finally extends a welcome, landing and perching for a few seconds on my head. Neil tells me its one of nineteen, the most recent additions a gift from the BBC.

After my mother died, I got these birds. It was thanks to God I got through it.

The woman who played my mother, Gemma Jones, she did a wonderful job. Neil shows me a black-and-white photograph of him and his mother together, a proud and smiling woman next to an ordinary looking boy with sandy hair and a toothy grin. I havent changed much, have I? he quips.

I muse aloud about the challenges of loneliness, and Neil, who lives alone, just rolls out stories about his friendships: the Premiership referee who showed up for his Keele football team, the vicar about to become an Archdeacon in East Riding, circus performers in Switzerland, and more, and more.

Keele is never far from his lips. In the film, I sing How Great Thou Art its my favourite hymn, and they use my voice, recorded in the Keele University Chapel.  When Marvellous is shown on BBC2, Neil will be watching it in Keele on the big screen with the international students, in early for the start of term.

Why not me? God is there. He calls us by name.

Neil was in conversation with Neill Harvey-Smith. 

Marvellous will be shown on BBC2 at 9.00 p.m. on Thursday 25th September. It will also be available for catch up on the BBC iPlayer.

Preb. Michael Harding: A warm, loving, very funny portrayal, with very few liberties taken on accuracy. Its truth to Neil made it even funnier - my spectacles kept misting over with tears of laughter.

Captain Frank McGregor, Church Army: Its called Marvellous and thats how you feel throughout. A moving portrayal of a lovely man. 

Page last updated: Friday 26th September 2014 11:07 AM
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