If you see a slightly donnish, bespectacled man taking photographs of the staircase in a railway station or hotel, do not be alarmed. It may be Dr Michael Mosley, the presenter of science programmes, indulging in his latest obsession – the chronicling of the finest steps in the world.
“I want to start a campaign for the best staircases, because most staircases are impossible to access,” he explains. “The staircase is probably the best form of exercise you can do, because gravity is pulling you down.”
His favourite is in a hotel in Sweden, but he’s also fond of Broadcasting House, the new headquarters of the BBC in London. It is, he admits, a “nightmare” building of bad lifts and “hot desks”, but it does boast a wide seven-floor staircase that he can yomp up.
Staircase sprinting is just one of the many habits the 56-year-old has picked up from his own programmes, which over the last three years have introduced the nation to a series of quirky diets and exercises promising to make you healthier and happier.
Indeed, a thrice-weekly, very short but very intense, burst of exercise is all you need to increase your fitness, according to Mosley, who is evangelical about the benefits of this so-called High Intensity Training. He mostly confines himself to a bicycle ride up the hill to his local Beaconsfield railway station, but when he is travelling a high-quality set of stairs is a suitable substitute.
His programmes, usually in the Horizon strand, have also done much to popularise the concept of “self-experimentation” – when the doctor carries out the procedure himself.
Mosley’s latest such venture, which hits our screens tomorrow night, is not for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for those still eating their evening meal. Michael Mosley: Infested! Living With Parasites involves our man travelling to a backstreet abattoir in Nairobi, Kenya, in order to eat some beef infested with the cyst of something called Taenia Saginata. It is quite as disgusting as it sounds – especially when Mosley later swallows a tiny camera to see that the cyst has developed into a fully fledged metre-long beef tapeworm, swimming around in his lower intestine. It looks like an elongated piece of tagliatelle jiving for the camera. Luckily, the tapeworm is killed off with a pill before it is allowed to complete its journey through Mosley’s intestine.
“The producer, and the researchers at Salford University were very keen, but my wife was very unkeen,” he admits. “It was when I started talking about 'nocturnal emissions’ that she said 'no’.” (Weak-stomached readers, look away now.) “They basically crawl out in the middle of the night.”
I am relieved to hear that his wife, Clare, though a practising GP, who even gives him ideas for programmes, will put her foot down. “My wife vetoes some of the more insane projects. She vetoed the idea of infesting myself with pubic lice,” he says. At this point I squeal in horror. “They would have been on my arm,” he says, a touch defensively.
To be fair, the programme does reveal fascinating details about how parasites unlock the secrets of evolution. For instance, body lice, which are found only on humans, not on apes, developed only 100,000 years ago in response to homo sapiens adopting clothing.
But while Mosley’s willingness to do the most disgusting or extreme things for our entertainment makes for good television, does it not sometimes flirt with gimmickiness?
“This is probably as far as I would go,” says Mosley, who is a trained doctor. “But it had a purpose. I was genuinely contributing to a piece of research, which is important to me. Generally speaking, everything I do has a substantial basis to it.”
It is also, occasionally, very lucrative. His most famous project, of course, was the 5:2 diet, which demonstrated how you could lose weight, fat and – possibly – elongate your life by “fasting” on two days of the week, eating normally on five.
Mosley, again, undertook the experiment himself. He expected the show on intermittent fasting to, like most programmes, make a “few ripples” or even “disappear without a trace” – mostly because it was broadcast during the summer of 2012, on the evening of the Olympic 200m final starring Usain Bolt.
Yet the idea “has continued to resonate in the most unlikely way,” in part – he gratefully admits – thanks to The Daily Telegraph commissioning him to write an article the week it aired. “That was the first time I used the phrase '5:2 diet’. And I think that’s what kicked it off.” And in what style. The spin-off books have sold more than one million copies and been translated into 32 different languages, while half the country appears to have become a Mosley disciple. “It is really nice. I love it,” he says. “People stop me and tell me how well they are doing on it.”
He has kept with it, losing a stone and half and ridding himself of the shadow of diabetes, which helped to kill his father at the age of 72. However, he did drop the diet when sharing his intestine with a tape worm. A note to his fasting devotees, however: it is a myth, he adds, that the parasite acts as a diet aid, despite rumours that Maria Callas, the opera singer, swore by the technique.
The royalty cheques for 5:2, he insists, are not that enormous. “I am not going to be buying a yacht with them,” he says. “At the moment, we are trying to see if we have enough money to put the deposit down for a flat for our eldest child. It’s that boring and pathetic, I am afraid.”
You can tell that riches have not gone to his head, or certainly not his wardrobe – he turns up to our interview in a shirt with a frayed collar, a battered pair of trousers and scuffed shoes. Though he enjoys the “showboating” aspect of presenting television programmes, for him the joy is in influencing the scientific debate, not being on the front cover of Radio Times.
At one stage of his life Mosley even flirted with the idea of the priesthood. “I come from a long line of religious people, particularly on my mother’s side, bishops and missionaries, so I was quite religious until I was about 20,” he says. “I spent a while on [the island] Iona and other Christian communities. I was searching for God, then I didn’t find God – or at least God didn’t find me.” Still, he says he “doesn’t disbelieve” and is fascinated in the role that faith – and the placebo effect – has in healing people.
In the event, he went a very different route. After PPE at Oxford, the degree choice of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, Mosley became a City banker, before becoming bored and retraining as a psychiatrist, but only practised briefly. He ended up as a researcher and then a producer of television programmes.
Becoming a presenter only came about because he could not find someone to front a programme about the history of medicine that he was developing, so he did it himself.
Since he first stood in front of a camera less than a decade ago, he has gone some way to popularising medical research. “Brian Cox has made physics sexy, and I would hope the stuff I do encourages some people.” He certainly has a Tiggerish enthusiasm, which not only makes him an engaging presence on screen, but also restless – continually on the hunt for a new project.
His two big passions are diabetes and dementia – “the two are intimately intertwined” – and he is curious as to whether doing The Telegraph crossword has any role to play in keeping his brain active. “There is some good evidence. Anyway, I like doing the crossword and Sudoku.”
The immediate project, however, is to bring home a new pet for the youngest of his four children, 14-year-old Kate, who shares his lack of squeamishness and wants to become the next David Attenborough.
She, he tells me, gleefully adopted the leech used in the parasite programme (feasting on Mosley’s arm) and christened him Lenny. Sadly, Lenny the leech “ended up escaping his aquarium and being eaten by the family cat”.
Mosley shows me the jar with Lenny’s replacement. Well, it is better than a tapeworm, I suppose.
The Telegraph, London