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OU on the BBC: Lab Rats - Meet the Rats

Updated Thursday 15th April 2004

It takes a special sort of determination, a unique strenght of character and perhaps just a little bit of recklessness to be a Lab Rat. Find out how our two heroes feel about the indignities heaped on them in our interview.

Mike & Zeron with T-Bird Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

What have you enjoyed most whilst filming Lab Rats?

Mike: There were a lot of magic moments when filming Lab Rat, but I guess the most enjoyable part was working with Zeron. He's a magic bloke and a lot of fun to be with. If you're talking about actual moments then it may give programme one's plot away, but obviously playing in the USAF F-16 fighter plane was an unbeatable experience. I only wish I had enough money to buy one.

Zeron: Two moments stand out for me most in the filming of Lab Rats the first is being cured of my snake phobia. The second is Mike and me driving and bonding along route 66 in a Black Thunderbird. Another magical moment was when I took on and defeated the crew at bar football. I would have liked to include flying in the F-16 but Mike got that privilege. Mind you I did get a G-loc badge (and he didn't).

What would you have liked to have known before starting the series?

Mike: Because I had been (and still am) living out of a suitcase I didn't have access to any of my books, so there was no way that I could revise before the series. Even though I knew about the subjects it had been a long time since I had studied them in any great detail. I guess I wish I had known how to show self-control in the presence of drink. That way I wouldn't have started the programme about sleep deprivation with a hangover. And it would have saved me from a very tough shoot. Perhaps knowing how to cure a hangover after I had caused it would be worthwhile as well.

Zeron: There is not much I would like to have known but if probably forced to pick something then it would be not to laugh and drink water while strapped into a centrifuge machine before blasting off into a g-force challenge.

If the BBC commissions a second series, what would you like Lab Rats to look at?

Mike: Hangover cures? Seriously, I would like to investigate how we cope with extremes, like altitude, heat and cold, and maybe look at endurance with a view to improving our ability to cope. Other interesting subjects might include truth tests, a look at possible 'sixth senses', how we can become fitter or live longer, what physical differences there really are between black and white blokes like Zeron and me, and anything that would involve flying an assault helicopter or racing cars and bikes. I would like to see what happens in zero gravity. And test the ability to resist torture. I'd also like to investigate if under hypnosis the mind can be taught to absorb and retain information. So I can train up to drive an Abraham tank. Yes!!

VW Van Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

What have been the best and worst moments?

Mike: Because of the nature of the series there have been some definite highs and lows. It was a demanding series to film. I guess the lows would mainly centre on the sleep deprivation shoot. Nothing enjoyable happened over those three days and a lot happened that I didn't like. For most of the time I really felt sick. London at night sucked (especially when it was raining) and the dancing girl sketch at the end of the programme was painfully embarrassing, not to mention a bit unnecessary in a programme about sleep.

Of course the good times far outweighed the bad times. I loved the flights in both the F-16 and the stunt planes. They were truly awesome. Meeting Mark O'Shea and his snakes was cool and having a sperm race on a big screen in a pub with an audience of screaming students was a great laugh. With a few exceptions the whole shoot was fun. We always seemed to do more laughing than talking and the team behind the scenes on location were great.

Actually I've changed my mind about the worse times. Driving that VW camper with no heater, no windscreen washers and no driver's door window through a blizzard in Birmingham was a pretty dire experience. Particularly when the brakes started pulling to one side and it refused to tick over.

Zeron: Best is being cured of my snake phobia and actually managing to sleep in a python cage (not many people can put that on their CV.)

Worst, was having to confront my worse fear in the snake house. And having to watch Mike take off in the F-16. I begged and pleaded for another go in the centrifuge to prove my passing out was a fluke. And having my erection strength measured. Of course most bloke would love to do something like that (but with a home use kit not on flipping national television).

What do your friends and family think of your Lab Rats adventures?

Mike: My Mum in particular thinks I'm mad, maybe because her friends in my home village are always asking her about the latest programme and commenting on things like the tapeworm that I grew in my gut for BBC ONE's Bodysnatchers. My Dad doesn't seem particularly surprised that I get up to the tricks that I do, perhaps because he's done so many weird and wonderful things in the past that it's almost expected. My brothers and sisters think that it's a weird way to make money, and my nieces and nephews love bragging to their school mates about the latest stunt that I have pulled. Perhaps my new wife, Liz, is most affected. She does worry sometimes that I'll hurt myself, but gives me loads of support when I have to do something I'm not keen on.

 Zeron: All my friends were envious at first but as the things I had to do unfolded they became relieved it wasn't them going through it. One mate thought the casting of my scrotum in a monkey house was far more information that he needed to know, but a couple of females have said I've got a cute arse.

Mike & Zeron Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

How have you two got on?

Mike: I first met Zeron at his screen test. As usual he rolled up at 'the last minute' (a few minutes late) in a cloud of raw energy. He was flustered but full of enthusiasm, which is something that everyone on the shoot has grown to love. We had half an hour or so to do our stuff in front of the camera and then went our separate ways. The next time we met up was when we heard that the first Lab Rat series had been commissioned, and the time after that we were filming together more or less immediately. Anyone can see from what I've said that we were pretty much thrown together but I think we make a great team.

We are very different: I love the countryside, whereas Zeron is a city boy, and I'm a scientist whereas Zeron is a stand up comic. I guess you could be forgiven for thinking that we had very little in common, but, in fact, we get on like a house on fire and always have. Part of it is because we have a mutual respect for each other, maybe born of our passion for our relative martial arts and in part because we are both naturally outgoing people.

Zeron's a great bloke; bright, brave, kind and giving. Although we have only known each other for a matter of months and most of that has been in the company of others in a very high pressure environment, we are firm friends. When filming Lab Rats, although the team work together for a great programme, there is very much a feeling of them and us - the experimenters and the lab rats.

Zeron: I call Mike the mouth on a stick because he talks to anyone and everyone. Many a time I had to drag him away from chatting complete strangers to death. He is a bloke of many complex sides. He'll sometimes say something just to deliberately rub someone up the wrong way. I have developed a look that I flash to Mike to tell him "can it"; And he will.

I am more relaxed and laid back than Mike who is a want-it-now bloke who can get ultra-excited for days about something, only to strangely hide his excitement and emotions once the cameras are rolling.

When it comes to meal times Mike is never, ever late. His belly is run by an atomic clock. And he is prone to finish every morsel of food on his plate, as well as clean off everybody else's!

But the thing I have learnt and love above all about Mike is that he will do anything for a mate. Right down to giving his last penny. I liken him to a British Bulldog with a heart of gold.

What's been the most interesting thing you've learnt whilst making Lab Rats?

Mike: You know, that one is incredibly difficult to answer because I feel as if I've pretty much done a BSc in 'Lab Rat science'. I learnt an enormous amount, but some things which stick out are when I discovered how incredible it is that pilots can control jet fighters under the physical pressures in which they work. I mean, they weigh as much as an elephant at 9G but still control millions of pounds' worth of fighting machine. In Sleep, I found out just how ill I could feel simply because I've had no shut-eye. In the Sperm show I found out that I wasn't infertile and in the Fear show I began to understand just how powerful phobias can be.

The series has stimulated me to re-visit my old biology textbooks and I hope that it inspires others to buy some new ones, or at least find out about the subjects that we looked at for themselves, perhaps through an OU short course or a foundation course.

Zeron: Women would make better fighter pilots because they can actually take more G's than a man. This is because of their fat displacement in their hips is a natural barrier to prevent blood being forced out of their upper body into their legs and away from the brain to cause G-loc. At the centrifuge centre female instructors were actually climbing into the machine and deliberately inducing G-loc!

Oh, and Mike's got bigger balls than me...

What have you found out about your body and it's limitations through the series?

Mike: To be honest I think that I know myself pretty well. There are things that frustrate me about both my body and my mind, but the flip side is that, like anyone, I also have a few strengths. I do know that there is no way I could ever be a world-class athlete, nor could I ever have been. I also know that I'm not a real hard man, especially emotionally, but I do have a fairly strong will; I do have stamina, and I am reasonably tough and resilient. I guess the programme has shown that I have similar strengths and weaknesses to many people. Like anyone out there, I'm unique, but I'm unique in a very average way, so I hope that viewers can relate to me - just a bloke dragged off the street. I could have been anyone.

Zeron: I've not got the bulldog mentality like Mike but I do regard myself as pretty fearless. I'm more the calculated bloke.


Zeron sperm wall shot Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Has making Lab Rats given you some empathy for the real animals?

Mike: Yeah, I do have empathy with real Lab Rats. More than ever I think that I know how they may feel. Although I was a research scientist in a field that is still dependent on animals in some cases (virology), I have never experimented on animals. Sometimes I do believe that some sort of 'animal model' must be used, but I would never do it myself.

That said, I think that people are often too reactionary. I had a mate in the environmental movement who went on a march to protest about the slow progress in HIV research in the States a few years ago, only for him to become involved in the anti-vivisection movement later in the UK. Sometimes there is a price to pay for making life-saving scientific advances, but I think that vivisection within the classroom, cosmetic industry and as a cheap and easy option is out of order.

Zeron: Love it or hate it the human race has advanced because of the use of rats. But also, in dark contrast, plagues of rats have almost destroyed the human race throughout history. And they still have the capability of harming us in the future. Rats are resilient and fervent breeders who may yet one day dominate the earth.

Vivisection is wrong when it is used in as a matter of course. We do need to maintain the equilibrium between medical advancement and inflicting pain on any earthly creature.

Personally, I'm happy to be a Lab Rat because what I learn ultimately teaches the bloke/female on the street more about our bodies. Bring it on.

How is Lab Rats different to other TV programmes?

Mike: I think that Lab Rats is unique. On one hand there are plenty of observational science programmes where the presenters just watch what happens in front of them or report on it. On the other hand there are plenty of those bloody reality TV programmes, which no one owns up to watching, but have huge viewing figures. Of course, there is also Jackass, but in Lab Rats all of our stunts have a reason. They do genuinely illustrate scientific theory and principles, but in a different way.

I think that many of the programmes also have a strong message. Off the top of my head here's a few - you need to be more than a film star or ace computer game player to fly a fighter jet, so you really should keep your self in shape. If you drive when you haven't had enough sleep you may think that you're doing OK but you may well kill yourself, or worse, someone else. If you don't check yourself out for testicular cancer (if you're a bloke) you may well die - statistically a couple of our viewers probably will in the next few years, which is tragic. And there are ways to overcome the phobia that may have been ruling your life. For inspiration, check out Zeron's courage in the fourth programme.

I think that Lab Rat mixes serious science with a genuinely funny format involving two very real blokes dragged off the street, but the take home messages are as serious as any programme.

Zeron: It's understandable science that everybody can relate with.

What's it like to work with the OU?

Mike: I love working for the Open University. It is something that really enthuses me. With the demise of the grant and the introduction of tuition fees it is more difficult than ever for people who want or need a second chance. Conventional universities are too expensive, the gamble is too big to take for most people, especially if they have debts, commitments or a family and many of the degrees aren't worth the paper they are written on. Realistically, the OU is often the only chance to get a decent degree from a respected university if you aren't made of money.

When I'm hacked off with filming, or the politics behind it that inevitably surface from time to time, the fact that I am working for the OU genuinely inspires me.

Zeron: The OU has reached out and touched the ordinary bloke/gal on the street. Through Lab Rats everybody watching will ask themselves "Could I have done that?" And say "now I know why."


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