You know John Henshaw. Personally and professionally, as it goes. Personally, albeit metaphorically, he’s that nice fella down the road. Professionally – which is to say, in any one of his many screen appearances – he plays the chap you wish lived down the road.
From The Parole Officer to Stan and Ollie, with Looking for Eric somewhere in the middle, Henshaw has made a career from his intuitive capacity to bring warmth, humour and good will to each and every part he’s cast in. Not that acting was always his profession of choice. Born and bred in Manchester, Henshaw spent ten years as a bin man before turning to the arts at the ripe age of forty. Almost three decades later, he’s returning to his roots for a part in The Keeper. Which is to say, he’s going back to Manchester, rather than the bins.
‘I think it’s a nice film,’ says John of The Keeper. Directed by Marcus Rosenmüller – ‘he’s mad as a box of frogs but so clever – the film sees John co-star as Jack Friar, one time secretary and founding father of St. Helens FC. It was Friar who, in 1945, scouted German soldier Bert Trautmann in a Lancashire prisoner of war camp and launched his journey to national celebrity as one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation.
If the story seems unlikely – thousands protested the idea of a so-called Nazi playing English football when Trautmann was later signed for Manchester City – Henshaw was hardly phased.
‘It was sort of like that in Lancashire,’ he says. ‘In those days people had memories and grievances – quite right – but I live in Oldham now and there was a camp up there and apparently German prisoners of war used to walk up and down the village, just letting on to everybody. From Jack’s point of view, he’s just seen a footballer and thought: we need a goalie, he’ll do.’
A lifelong Man City supporter, Henshaw was no stranger to the legacy of Trautmann growing up.
‘I’ve actually seen him play – when I was seven. I remember the first time I went to Maine Road and saw him, my father told me the story. Hell of a guy.’
Not that The Keeper is a football film, of course. ‘I mean, the football in the film is about ten per cent,’ says Henshaw. ‘It’s about reconciliation and racial prejudice and people getting on with their lives. There’s romance in it, tragedy, all sorts.
‘It was a good story that attracted me really and it’s a bonus that it just happened to be about my club, that I support, and about one of my heroes.‘
Period drama fare – the earthy, working class sort, rather than lush corset affairs – litters Henshaw’s CV. Indeed, the forties and fifties alone account for a majority share. Whilst Henshaw suggests this is by happy accident – ‘it’s just the way it’s fallen’ – there’s no doubt in his mind as to why cinema goers love the era.
‘It’s nostalgia isn’t it. I’ve been in pubs where they’re playing crooners’ songs and everybody was singing along, including kids who pick up their parents’ nostalgia. It’s a seed that’s planted and I think it’s a comfort thing. You sort of gloss over the dodgy bits, the dark bits, and it’s like happy memories you know.
‘You’ve got to get a bit of balance in. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment, it’s not a documentary. When Marcus went over to Valencia to meet Bert, he said I don’t want it just to be about when I broke my neck in the cup final. I want it to be about people and families and something that people want to watch and enjoy. It’s sort of a duty of care to Bert really to make it more of a story. We feel it’s more of a woman’s film really. To quote Marcus: men with big hearts. It’s not forced, it’s not written humour, it just comes out of the characters.’
If humour comes out of any character in the film, it’s John. Even on set – Germany – it’s easy to imagine that it was he getting the cast laughing: ‘It was forty degrees. I’ve got a tweed suit on and an overcoat and all that. I’m not built for running up and down chasing sheep…’ On the other hand, there’s one part of the process he’s very serious about. John Henshaw wants you to see his new film whilst it’s in cinemas.
He says: ‘The majority of people, kids especially, want to go and see the X-Men and Batman and stuff like that. They watch a Ken Loach film five years after it was made at two o’clock in the morning on the telly and go oh that was great, and you go why didn’t you go and see it at the pictures?‘
The Keeper is out now. Read our review here.