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OU on the BBC: Lab Rats - Production Process

Updated Thursday 15th April 2004

Creating challenges for the Lab Rats is no ordinary job, explains producer Nic Guttridge

Nic Guttridge and Mike Leahy Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

I have never been a scientist. In fact, I have never pretended to understand even the most basic of scientific principles. Had you asked me, I would have told you that Boyle was what you did to eggs, fission was what people did in big wellies on riverbanks, and Kelvin Scale was a kid at school who always beat me in spelling tests. But that was before Lab Rats.

Our brief was to make a series of intelligent but entertaining programmes which would present scientific ideas in a new way. The plan was to create a science series which didn't feel like a science series, but which involved you in the experiences of its two central characters. Their on-screen relationship would be the pivot on which everything turned. Or is that the fulcrum?

Each week these characters, the Lab Rats, would take on a different scientific "road-trip", putting themselves through a range of bizarre and sometimes dangerous experiments to find out more about how their bodies - and, therefore, how everyone's bodies - work. It was a new approach to science on television and it all sounded great.

Enter Mike Leahy and Zeron Gibson.

Getting to grips with the science was going to be tough. But getting to grips with Mike and Zeron made getting to grips with the science seem like a walk in the park.

It was always going to take a rare combination of personalities to make Lab Rats work. And in Mike and Zeron we have a combination of personalities which, thankfully for the sake of world order, is very rare indeed. One of the suggested titles for Lab Rats was "Mad Scientists". In some ways it would have been more appropriate. These guys are nutters. They have to be.

Suppose, for example, I approached you in the course of making the episode on male fertility, with this escalating series of requests. At what point would you have told me where to go?:

"OK guys, we need to look at the relationship between testicle size and sperm count".

"I'd like you to compare the size of your testicles".

"We're going to do it by getting you to take plaster cast moulds of your balls".

"You're going to be making the moulds in the back of the chimpanzee enclosure at Dudley Zoo".

Mike and Zeron told me where to go when I asked them to do it for a second time, with a female chimp blowing raspberries at them. Nothing seems to be off limits with these guys, which is an absolute gift when it comes to devising ways of making difficult or sensitive points in an engaging way.

 
Nic Guttridge and Zeron Gibson Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Who in their right mind would put themselves through the full F-16 fighter pilot centrifuge training without any serious prior experience? It may sound like a fun thing to do - real "Boys' Own" stuff, right? But, believe me, the reality is very scary indeed.

As a director, I like to have a go at everything that I ask presenters to go through. My sense of fair play doesn't allow me to ask anyone to do something that I wouldn't be prepared to do myself. While setting up the g-force programme I was whipped around at 6g in a stunt plane, and I even suffered a minute of vigorous spinning in a gyroscope. But I had to draw the line at the centrifuge.

Most fighter pilots reckon that an extreme evasive combat turn would take them to around 7 or 8g for no more than ten seconds. In the centrifuge, Mike and Zeron had to take on 9g for 15 seconds. The US Air Force rarely takes civilians higher than 3g. 9g is the equivalent of having a force 9 times your own bodyweight crushing down on you. If you get your breathing wrong you pass out. In other words, this is a serious business. And that's what the Lab Rats faced.

Mike surpassed all expectations and completed the full training programme. Just how extraordinary that is cannot be understated. The other pilots who were training on that day nicknamed him "the g-monster". A slightly overweight English bloke had taken them on at their own game, and done as well as them. Being Mike, he took it in his stride. In fact, that's my one frustration with the man. He just isn't human!

Zeron, bless him, passed out at 7g. What you don't get to see in the programme is that he actually passed out twice. After the first time, I spoke to him over the intercom and told him to come out of the centrifuge. He had nothing to prove. He didn't have to carry on. But he wanted to go again. Had the experts been prepared to let him, he would have tried a third time. The next day he was still asking me if he could get back in and give it another shot. He was determined to beat the machine.

And that really sums up the character of these guys. Whether we were filming them or not, Mike and Zeron would want to do these things. They are supremely competitive, both with each other, and in how hard they push their own bodies. That is the key to their relationship and, as it is their relationship which drives the programmes, it makes for some really great TV moments. Let's keep our fingers crossed for a second series.

And as for the science. Well, six months on, I can hold my own in a conversation about centripetal force, I can tell you about the workings of your vestibular system, and I can give you the low-down on your physiological responses during arousal. That's what Lab Rats has given me - a working knowledge of scientific concepts that I had never thought about before. The hope is that anyone watching the series feels the same.

By the way, I have also learned that Boyle figured out the relationship between pressure and volume in a gas, and that fission is the splitting of something into different parts. Kelvin Scale, however, will always be the kid at school who always beat me in spelling tests. The git.

 

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