How Race Across The World Quietly Became Our Favourite Comfort Watch

Race Across the World has given us some of the most moving TV moments of the year

Alfie and Owen on Race Across the World

by Nikki Peach |
Updated on

Props where props are due. And we have to give them to the casting directors on Race Across the World.

This year, amidst all the rain, political upheaval and cost of living struggles, the show has been a comforting and heartwarming antidote to life - and that’s in no small part due to the incredible cast.

The BBC show, which first started in 2019, follows five pairs as they race from check point to check point with the hope of winning the £20,000 prize. They only have a map, a travel guide, a GPS tracker and each other as they embark on their journey. As well as an entire BBC film crew, of course....

Series four is made up of best friends Alfie and Owen from Hertfordshire, siblings Betty and James from Yorkshire, mother and daughter Eugenie and Isabel from Birmingham, mother and daughter Brydie and Sharon from Kent and married couple Stephen and Viv from Rutland.

Travelling from Japan to Lombok in Indonesia, taking in South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Jakarta on the way, we see these duos at their highest and lowest. From losing their passports, missing the last ferry and running out of cash to bonding with local families, assimilating into different cultures and learning new things about the people they're travelling with - as well as themselves.

The show serves as a reminder of how important it is to challenge our first impressions. Alfie and Owen, for example, who are the frontrunners heading into the final leg of the race, seemed like they had missed the entire point of the show when they first set off. While Owen wanted to try Wagyu beef and enjoy a few beers in South Korea, Alfie looked like he was about to combust in a panic about the budget. Always keen to remind the audience that it is in fact a race and not a holiday, it seemed as though the 21-year-old duo were wasting a once-in-a-life-time opportunity.

However, as the race continued, we learnt about Owen’s plans to become a pilot and travel the world, and discovered that Alfie is still processing the loss of his mum, who died not long after he started primary school, and that he longs to have a big family of his own. We also come to realise that, despite seeming like polar opposites at times, their friendship is mutually rewarding and they have clearly helped each other through some really difficult experiences. Suddenly, we are rooting for them to win.

Which becomes all the more complicated when we hear everyone else's stories too. Mother and daughter Brydie and Sharon, for example, spoke candidly about how much they’ve struggled with money over the years and soaked in every experience they could during the first few legs – so much so that they lagged behind the other groups and were the first couple to be eliminated.

Then there’s siblings Betty and James, whose arc really formed in the last episode when they had a heart to heart about Betty’s MRKH (Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster–Hauser) syndrome diagnosis – which means she does not have a uterus or a womb – after she bonded with the children at their homestay in Indonesia.

When we first met these siblings, it was clear that 25-year-old Betty and 21-year-old James were slightly estranged. Going on the show had been Betty's idea; she wanted to explore the world and wanted her younger brother to step out of his comfort zone (Magaluf) and learn to embrace other cultures. Slowly but surely, the love and respect they have for each other became apparent – especially when Betty left their passports on the coach and nearly got them thrown out of the competition.

However, it's when Betty broke down about her MRKH syndrome and how difficult it has been for her knowing she will never conceive or carry her own children that we really see them connect. She says, 'I think as a young woman, you're told you're going to marry, you're going to have a family, and from a young age when that's taken away from you, it does put doubts in your mind. Doubts in your purpose as a person, I suppose.'

It's an incredibly candid and moving conversation that leaves James visibly upset. Speaking to the camera crew shortly afterwards, he says, 'It’s only up until now I realise how much it does actually affect her.' He then broke down in tears and asked, 'Can somebody just hug me please?' A crew member then broke the fourth wall and stepped out to give him a hug in what's already been called 'the most moving TV moment of the year'.

Then there's mother and daughter Eugenie and Isabel, who have also been on an emotional journey on the show. When the race first started, it seemed as though their clashing personalities were going to stop them from winning any legs. As the series unfolded, we've witnessed them go from strength to strength and become support systems for one another, even clipping Alfie and Owen's heels in the race. It's been particularly special to see the more reserved Isabel, 25, come out of her shell with strangers, and how proud that has made her mum, 61.

Then there's married couple Stephen and Viv. At first, we assume they must have been married for decades, but it turns out Stephen is Viv's third husband and that they met while working in the same school. Whether they are rushing through train stations, bickering about the budget or worrying about sleeping on the floor in a room without a door, these two have turned out to be couple goals. In the last episode, for example, they were left at a slightly decrepit bus station in the dark with no real idea of when the next bus would come. What did they do? They started slow dancing under the tarpaulin.

It's moments like these, and indeed shows like this, that help us escape reality. For an hour every Wednesday, we find ourselves rooting for these every day people who we've got to know through their struggles off and on camera. It might be a race, but whatever happens, they're all winners.

The final of Race Across the World airs at 9pm on BBC One on Wednesday 29 May.

Nikki Peach is news and entertainment writer at Grazia UK, working across pop culture, TV and current affairs.

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