Race Across the World series four review – TV that makes you feel that there is hope

<span>Mother-daughter duo … teacher Eugenie and trainee clinical scientist Isabel on the road in Race Across the World (BBC One).</span><span>Photograph: Studio Lambert</span>
Mother-daughter duo … teacher Eugenie and trainee clinical scientist Isabel on the road in Race Across the World (BBC One).Photograph: Studio Lambert

Race Across the World might be one of television’s most wholesome shows. Now into its fourth series proper, after a Covid-delayed celebrity spin-off last year, it follows paired teams as they attempt to travel thousands of miles without some of the comfortable trappings of modern life. Contestants hand over their smartphones and bank cards and are given the cash equivalent of the cost of a one-way flight to their final destination. They must get to the end through a series of checkpoints using public transport and ingenuity, taking on odd jobs to earn extra funds, and, crucially, relying on the kindness of strangers along the way.

Since it made its debut in 2019, the series has grown in popularity, and by 2023, moved from its original BBC Two home to BBC One, much like Bake Off and Peaky Blinders before it. During the pandemic, it offered much-needed escapism. It even got a celebrity version, as all successful TV competitions must. Better still, the celebrity version wasn’t a substandard cash-in. Watching an All Saint and a member of McFly carting their mums from Marrakech to the Arctic Circle on a series of exhausting overnight rail journeys might not sound like gripping TV, but the show was remarkable. Its challenge highlights the kindness of strangers and plumbs the psychology of some of our closest relationships.

Series four offers more of the same, with a few subtle differences. The competitors seem a little younger, and Japan’s bullet trains are forbidden. Otherwise, it is business as usual, and this suits it very well.

Over the course of eight episodes, the five teams must travel from the island of Hokkaido, in the north of Japan, to the Indonesian island of Lombok, a journey of roughly 9,300 miles (15,000km), across seven countries, over 50 days. Last series, the pairs travelled across Canada, where most people they encountered spoke English. But this journey entails linguistic barriers, and a need to navigate what may be, for some, brand new cultural norms.

Episode one introduces us to the teams and sets them off on a voyage through Japan. At the start, they are usually jittery and error-prone. One of the teams, best friends Alfie and Owen, are the show’s youngest participants to date. They are baby-faced 20-year-olds who are the most overtly competitive and they have, perhaps, the most to learn – about the world and about themselves.

“We have got to budget our bums off,” insists Alfie, sweetly, before either he or Owen – they’re not going to argue about it, although they clearly will – misplaces the all-important map.

At the other end of the age spectrum are Stephen and Viv, an older married couple who have both recently suffered health problems, and whose approach is more laid back. As Alfie and Owen frantically yoyo between Tokyo and other destinations, Stephen and Viv enjoy a bath in hot springs. Betty and James are siblings, aged 25 and 21, who have polar-opposite approaches to travel: Betty likes to take in other cultures; James prefers an Ayia Napa trip with the lads. And there are two mother-daughter teams, Eugenie and Isabel, and Brydie and Sharon.

Travelling in this manner is high-pressured and alien, even for contestants with globetrotting experience, and Race Across the World shows just how illuminating and revelatory it can be to take people out of a familiar environment and task them with making their way in a wholly new one. Isabel turns out to be a language savant, picking up Japanese at a rate that impresses her stunned mother. Brydie, who has severe dyslexia, says that she is so used to asking people for help that she has no problem doing so on this adventure. And even for people who know each other very well, the challenge creates supercharged intimacy.

Related: Race Across the World series three review – one of the greatest reality shows gets its best cast ever

Race Across the World is a travelogue, a history lesson, an exploration of psychology, and a thrilling competition (the programme-makers are very good at making it all seem impossibly close in the edit, even when teams are hours apart). But I love that it is also humanitarian, when all can seem so very bleak, and suggests there is still hope in the world, if we open our horizons.

• Race Across the World aired on BBC One and is on BBC iPlayer