Race Across the World wasn’t lying to everyone – that’s just how TV works

Coup de race: contestants Alfie and Owen celebrate on BBC’s ‘Race Across the World’ (Studio Lambert)
Coup de race: contestants Alfie and Owen celebrate on BBC’s ‘Race Across the World’ (Studio Lambert)

Lies, damned lies and “secret” hotels – oh, how we’ve all been fooled by Race Across the World. The BBC’s explosively popular reality series, in which pairs of participants drive, sail, or perhaps even crawl from one geographical point to some distant other, has been rocked by new insider details about the show’s production. Past winners have shared titbits on social media, revealing that they would often be put up off-camera in hotels for their own safety, and that the supposedly handler-less contestants were in fact accompanied by members of the production team at all times. Whatever next? Love Island isn’t about people finding true and genuine romantic love? I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! doesn’t feature bigtime celebrities? The Cube is actually more of a cuboid?

The revelation that Race Across the World might be lightly fudging the specifics of its premise hardly constitutes an Edward Snowden-esque whistleblowing. Nor was the information even exclusive to the ex-contestants. Discussing the filming of Race Across the World on a recent episode of his insider-y podcast The Rest is Entertainment, author-presenter Richard Osman was able to divulge some of the tricks used to film the BBC series, noting the use of a “follow car” behind each travelling pair containing security personnel and a medic, as well as technical equipment such as a spare camera and batteries. He explained that a second camera team would also retrace the steps of the racing pairs, capturing higher-quality footage of the scenery, etc, to seamlessly weave into the finished product. That’s not, however, to say that the show is completely phoney in its concept. “The couple would never see [the follow car],” Osman said. “And that’s why it’s such a great show. It feels very natural. Everything is done to make the trip as genuine as possible.” But this is almost irrelevant. The question of what is “genuine” could barely matter less.

The viewing public have never relished the idea they’re being lied to. Recall, for instance, the time that Frozen Planet was found to have staged sequences featuring newborn polar bear cubs in a Dutch zoo. Or the time that Britain’s Got Talent winner Jules O’Dwyer discretely switched out her performance-anxious dog for a canine lookalike in the highwire finale of the 2015 ITV competition. The “reality” of any reality TV show is a precarious sham indeed; once the artifice starts to peel, there’s simply nothing to do but pick away at it. (Would we notice if producers tried the same gambit with Ant and Dec, covertly subbing them out for a more affordable Sunderland-born duo called Arch and Dan? Who even knows!) But, of course, the intention is never merely to deceive. In the case of Race Across the World, the unseen hotels are said to be there to ensure contestant safety, to prevent risky journeys into the dead of night. (The polar bears, too, were necessarily zoo-situated for their own wellbeing.)

Here, it’s a case of “What are the alternatives?” It is, after all, only television. The safety and wellbeing of those involved should be paramount: better to weather allegations of fakery than allow even the slimmest possibility that harm would befall its contestants. It’s just not worth it.

More than this, though, the urge to fuss over the verisimilitude of a programme like Race Across the World is rather missing the point. The series, described by our reviewer Nick Hilton as being “like tourism but in a more intense, condensed, concentrated and indeed exhausting form”, has swelled in popularity not because of the technicalities of the race, but because of the colour – both the vicarious escapism of documented travel and the lively personalities of its participants. This series saw sibling contestants Betty and James move viewers to tears with a candid discussion of personal issues, and the former’s diagnosis with MRKH Syndrome (Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser), a rare congenital disorder affecting the reproductive system.

Race Across the World is TV, not reality; the stakes are a mere bagatelle. Ultimately, all that matters is what makes it to the screen. Is it entertaining? Is it causing any harm? These are the two questions that really need answering. Programmes like this don’t demand stringent authenticity. They only ask that you play along. If you want to watch couples arduously navigate great distances without a camera crew in sight, pull up a deckchair inside your local IKEA. If you want to watch something fun, Race Across the World will surely do.

‘Race Across the World’ is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer