From his chilly hut in the shadow of a Shepperton sound stage in Surrey, the Breakaway Effects Company (Neil, plus Emma the dog) supplies fake breakables to the entertainment industry.
From here comes the 'glassware' that made the West a safe place for a good bundle in the saloon, and windows fit to jump through without opening. Although a small display of his craftsmanship just inside his studio looks more like the leftovers from an office party, there is no shortage of takers for the bottles and glasses. A standard wine bottle is the most commonly requested item at pounds 5.50 plus VAT, but there are plenty of offbeat orders, too.
'The BBC ordered a breakable Jesus Christ statue once,' says Neil in his cheery Cornish voice, 'and my wife got a friend of hers to ring me up on April Fool's Day and order 20 4ft-high jelly babies, in wax, in different colours. I took it dead seriously, because that is the sort of thing people ring up wanting.'
Neil's breakables are necessary to prevent permanent damage to expensive actors, but they have plenty of alternative uses. The easily replaceable Muppets required his services for The Muppets' Christmas Carol. 'One of the rats had to fall in a frozen barrel and get stuck with its tail sticking out. They wanted to pull it out so it would look frozen like a lollipop. The rat had to be covered in wax, to look like ice, but not so that it would stick to its fur. Then Gonzo smashed it on the table, the wax fell off and the rat was left lying there. I was very pleased with that.'
The world of breakables is not all slapstick and rat lollies, however. Getting fragile objects to the set in one piece can be 'bloody terrifying'.
'My longest delivery was for Hudson Hawk, starring Bruce Willis. They wanted something like a 5ft-by-2ft orange segment with the flesh taken out. Eight of them. They took a day each to make, and then I had to drive them to Wales, to have mirroring put on. There's a lot of bumps between here and Wales. Then I had to drive them to the set in Budapest, and there's a lot of bumps between here and Budapest, too. I lost a few pounds on that journey, worrying whether I would turn up in Hungary with a vanload of broken bits.'
Bumps are not the only threat to the integrity of Neil's breakables. A major problem is dimwitted clients. 'They'll order a load of bottles and wander off, then I get a phone call three days later and they say: 'These bottles keep breaking]' They want them to break when they hit the bloke, but not when they put the box down heavily or when they sit on them.'
Contrary to popular belief, the bottles are not made from sugar but resin. 'I've made things out of sugar and it's horrible. It melts and all sorts of things happen to it.' The Western might never have caught on as a genre if some of the more boisterous residents of Dodge City and Tombstone were expected to brain each other with handfuls of syrup.
If Neil's studio were a film set, then Neil would be the mad scientist. In the manner of Doctor Frankenstein's laboratory, a rack along one wall holds an array of strangely shaped casts. But instead of body parts, these moulds have names like 'large vase', 'highball', 'goldfish bowl' and 'milk bottle'.
The resin comes from granules that are melted into a viscous goo in a couple of saucepans on a filthy little stove in the corner. An overhead extractor fan removes the fumes, hence the chilly atmosphere. Covered in the grime of a thousand mouldings, Neil's cooker is a telltale sign that he did not learn his craft in the kitchens of the Savoy. In fact, he entered via the even more improbable route of sheep farming.
'Farming was a bit poor, so I . . . thought I'd do something a bit poorer, and I came to London to work for a special-effects company. We used to do explosions and stuff, model making. Each effects company has someone that does bottles and glasses, but it was usually a case of 'Where are the moulds?' and 'Can you remember how to do it?', so I thought, 'I'll do that'.'
Neil takes pride in the quality of his breakables. 'You have to give the people who are using it confidence. If it looks right, then they want to use more.'
Some firms are not so happy about imitations of their beers, wines and spirits cropping up on the large and small screen. Television and film companies are worried about product placement, but there is another reason for manufacturers' sniffiness: 'If you have just spent millions of pounds on an advertising campaign to convince people that your whisky is smooth and sophisticated, you don't really want to see people using the bottles to smash each other over the head with in a bar-room brawl.'
Apart from the few stunt men who insist on doing their spectacular window leaps with real glass, whom Neil kindly describes as 'a breed apart', satisfaction with his trickery extends even beyond the film world. The rush to fill an order for a load of glass for a Sugar Puffs advert is interrupted by the telephone. 'Euro Disney,' he explains. 'They want some icicles.'
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