What is it that makes the Race Across the World format – back this week but with celebrities, who are like you and me but much better – so compelling? I have been pondering this. Because a lot of the time, Race Across the World (Wednesday 13 September, 9pm, BBC One) is about two people in backpacks narrowly missing a train. Or two people in backpacks narrowly catching a train. Sometimes the two people in backpacks wander into a random cafe and say, in slow English without a hint of a foreign language about it, “You ah … help? Me? To ahh … we must get train? We must … narrowly get on. Train.” That’s it, for six episodes, and then somehow they’re in Tromsø. That shouldn’t be very good.
And yet, somehow, it is. The hyped-up drama of Race Across the World helps with this – the drone shots, the urgent music, John Hannah growling about maps – because without that, it really is just Interrailing cosplay. (If you’re unfamiliar with Race Across the World, and you’re right I probably should have led with this, four teams of two race from checkpoint to checkpoint on a journey from one city to another, operating on a limited budget that basically means they have to get coaches a lot.) I think what is important, too, is the peculiar family dynamics at play – father-son, mother-son, brother-sister, mother-daughter – that either start to break or grow stronger when two people who are extremely tired sit together on an overcrowded ferry. You see people squabble. You see people sprint off in opposite directions. You see people marvel at a church. You see people remember a good holiday they once had, or how they supported each other in bad times, and then you see someone spend way too long talking to a stranger who can’t help them and it’s like: Shut up, Mum! We’re meant to be in a race! There are two TV formats we will never stop loving in this country – an adult child goes on holiday with their parent (Travels With My Father; Bradley Walsh & Son: Breaking Dad) and normal people being pushed to their limits by being very tired and having to carry a lot of equipment (the various SAS series; I’m a Celebrity, to an extent). Race Across the World is savvy enough to combine the two. It will never go out of fashion.
To the celebrity version, then. We have McBusted’s Harry Judd, prep-school-rocker turned chore-jacket-and-Strictly dad, who takes his mum Emma along for the ride. We have BBC weatherman Alex Beresford and his gruff dad Noel. Racing driver Billy Monger and his makeup artist sister Bonny seem most equipped to win this thing at a canter, but I have a strange feeling they have been raised to never, ever swear, and it makes me feel eerie. Melanie Blatt is still not over being in All Saints that time but her journey north from Marrakech with her chic mum, Helene, makes for some genuine onscreen warmth and emotion. But still I cannot help watch this show and go: why would anyone do this?
None of it, to me, looks even a little bit fun. Every coach looks hot and uncomfortable and normally has a baby crying on it. Every train station seems to be staffed with deliberately unhelpful people, who don’t speak their language and they don’t speak theirs back. They cannot use credit cards so have to use cash for everything, which in 2023 is obviously deeply inconvenient. They have to lull themselves into a half-sleep on the carpeted floor of a ferry that shifts slowly overnight from France to Corsica because there’s no other way to get there. They are always in a rush and never really see anything. The only outlier is Harry Judd, whose mum is addicted to looking at cathedrals, but you can see him creak and crack and grow deeply bored as she keeps gazing up in wonder and saying: “It’s extraordinary that they made this hundreds of years ago, isn’t it?”
What really makes Race Across The World is that it captures something so tangible but so rarely seen on screen: a particular texture of rubbish holiday, wearing a vest and some cargo shorts and peeling yourself off a coach seat to hop out by a dusty roadside and have a half-argument with the person who gave you life. No we can’t have an ice-cream, if you feel sick then stop reading, oh do we have to go up those stairs?, I think it’s up those stairs. I will, of course, be watching every second.