Countdown number-wrangler Carol Vorderman will tell you that she appeared on the very first celebrity version of a British TV show in December 1998, but Carol Vorderman has been getting high on her own supply. 18 months before she gave her Cher in a 1998 episode of Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes, Wendy Richard and Todd Carty from EastEnders graced episode one of Celebrity Ready Steady Cook, and they’d appreciate Vorders giving it a bit less of all that, thank you.
The point being: celebrity versions of TV shows are mostly dross. Not being able to choose from the top drawer of fame (you’ll never see Dwayne The Rock Johnson filleting a seabass on Celebrity MasterChef, or the Pope dancing on ice), they generally feature the packing peanuts of the TV world. These shows use what might be described as a homeopathic definition of ‘celebrity’, in that this glass of water has a better chance of remembering who any of the cast are than I do.
The cast of Celebrity Race Across the World is different. Not because of their calibre – there’s a racing driver, a weatherman, a former All Saint, and the drummer from McFly – but because they’ve each brought along their mums. Or to specify, McFly and All Saint have brought along their mums, the racing driver’s brought his sister, and the weatherman’s brought his dad.
Half of each team being a regular person and not a venerable luminary dilutes the celebrity quotient to the extent that the show actually becomes good, just like the normal version (even if it does invalidate the title, which should have been changed to Celebrity and Non-Celebrity Family Member of their Choice Race Across the World.)
The format of CaN-CFMotCRAtW is just like the normal version, just shorter because famous people cost more to film than the rest of us. Teams of two are stripped of their bank cards and phones, and given a map, currency, a camera crew, and a destination that they have to reach any which way they can without flying, while clocking in at multiple checkpoints along the way. This lot start in Marrakech, where they’re told to head to Norway.
How do you get to Norway? Well, I wouldn’t start from Marrakech. And two of the teams almost don’t. McFly’s mum makes them miss the bus by spending too long in the purchase of a biscuit (“We missed the bus,” he says sternly. “Yeah” she agrees, hanging her head like a toddler told that she shouldn’t have put the cat in the washing machine). Alex the weatherman’s dad Noel decides he wants to soak up the local culture in the land of his forebears rather than crack on. Fair enough Noel, but maybe soak things up in your own time, you’ve got a race to win.
Son Alex, who eats the same sandwich for lunch every day because it keeps him “safe and healthy” is very much of my way of thinking, and there’s a tense conversation on a bench about how to proceed. And just like the sun poking out from a cloud, suddenly there’s your TV show. Forget the glossy travelogue vistas and sunset shots by drone. Forget haggling with taxi drivers for a half-price trip across a desert. Forget the scale and breadth of it, this small exchange between a father and son is the show. It’s real, and it’s recognisable, and over the next five weeks I promise you, it will be nourishing.
That’s because over the next five weeks, Alex the weatherman and his dad (“In terms of progress, we’ve made absolutely none”), and McFly and his mum and the rest of them are going to be up against it. They’re going to be tired, and frustrated, and then they’re going to be elated and riding high. They’re going to resent each other and they’re going to be grateful for each other. For us sitting at home and watching, it will make us think about the people that also drive us up the wall, and for whom we are also so, so, grateful.
This series especially, because it features only family and not romantic pairings, promises to be particularly resonant. We can all feel for a mother who missed her youngest son like mad when he moved out of home early, and who still misses him today because the grandchildren pull him further away (“it was like a bereavement”). We can understand a son who sees himself as an grown-up tussling with the dad who can’t not see him as a child to instruct and protect. We can feel for a mum who judges her adult daughter’s profligate lifestyle and who worries that she might have failed to instil the right lessons.
And anybody with a sibling should understand the piss-take/care-take balance between the youngest (and my favourite) pair: former racing driver and double amputee Billy and his sister Bonny. She might roll her eyes at his jokes, but she’d clearly grow 10 feet tall and breathe fire at anybody who hurt him. Taking on this challenge with two prosthetic legs, Billy may well be the mentally toughest and most determined contestant this show’s ever seen, but he’s not doing it alone – just watch their final sprint to this week’s checkpoint to know that.
When you watch this show, you’re not really watching a race to Norway, but a story about people who love each other working out how to fit together inside the same small space. Happily for the show’s producers, that’s also the premise for all the best sitcoms, which is the other thing you get with Race Across the World – comedy characters. All Saint Mel and her mum are already Edina Monsoon and June Whitfield from Absolutely Fabulous – one spending like a Kardashian while the other urges caution. Billy and Bonny, love them as I do, have their Stath and Sophie moments (“We haven’t got many skills between us” / “What’s a budget?” )
It’s a bit of everything then, expertly edited by a BBC team who make this complicated storytelling look easy. It’s drama. It’s truth. It’s travel. It’s haggling with taxi drivers for half-price trips across deserts. It’s comedy. And it’s tense, freighted, exhausted love. Watch it, call your family, and then come back next week for Spain.
Celebrity Race Across the World airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC One.