Phil & Amity all smiles so far…

It’s no overstatement that when you first walk onto set for The Block All Stars it’s overwhelming. It’s constant activity: four teams of two working frantically on their house while a plethora of tradesmen amble about the site with various levels of intensity and purpose all completing work and trying to stay out of each other’s way (some working conflicting trades in the same space at the same time)… and then you can layer in the producers and camera crews – minimum two per site. Too. Many. People.

For the contestants on the sixth season of the uber-renovation series it’s an even greater level of intensity. The teams – Phil & Amity (S01), Josh & Jenna (S04), Mark & Duncan (S03) and Dan & Dani (S05) – have all been there before and felt the pain. None have won the series so they all come with a mission to prove their worth; to rectify past mistakes and missteps; to win the elusive grand prize of an additional $100,000 tax free on top of whatever they make over their reserve price when their house is sold at auction in the final episode of their series.

The Block All Stars is as much about ego as competition too. Along the way the contestants become household names, appearing in commercials throughout the series, as well as reaching the heights/depths of infamy depending on how they’re perceived by the audience who cluster around their TV and are fed their nightly serving of the edited craziness. How the teams respond to a setback in their construction program is critical to this infamy – their next move is predicted and picked apart by the viewing masses who, thanks to social media, are ready to pounce – just ask Jenna and Dani how they fared after their respective first spin around the block.

I was lucky enough to visit the set/site on day 47 of the shoot. The Blockheads had delivered and been judged on three rooms already, and they were in the thick of delivering their laundry and kitchens (these rooms had to be ready for assessment in five days time and not one of the four houses looked like they’d be ready in five weeks). It smells and sounds like a building site but there’s an added air of panic as the deadlines are tight and the budgets miniscule. On top of that they still had two major spaces plus the exterior and landscaping to complete in the remaining Block-a-riffic 18 days of the shoot.

Even Josh is smiling… for now…

Executive Producer Julian Cress, co-parent of the concept with long time friend and collaborator David Barbour, offers that “last week broke the lot of them – they don’t have time to recover this week because their kitchens arrive to be installed in three days, so it’s all hands on deck”.

Cress knows pressure. He’s been in television almost his entire career, either as a producer for shows like 60 Minutes or as a show runner/EP for his own product, and The Block is without doubt his and David’s baby. They created it, pitched it and own it, and together they run an extremely tight ship. In 2013 they will deliver two versions of their long-form “stripped” series for Channel 9. At least this series they have the luxury of a ‘formal’ production office in the rented house next door to the sites – but that’s just where the live action is, in Cress’s sphere of influence.

Across town in Crow’s Nest is a couple of floors full of post-production staff controlled by Barbour who pore daily over log sheets and DVDs of footage to edit together the 5-6 nights a week the Network has called for. Two full days of filming from at least 5 cameras (plus the digital video footage the contestants take of themselves as diary entries) is cut down to the 30, 60 or 90 minute episode they’ll deliver for our consumption and Nine’s ratings pleasure. It’s so brutal that the editing commences on day 2 of the shoot so they can attempt to get ahead, but the reality is that by the time the shooting wraps in two weeks time, they’ll have only delivered two weeks worth of shows with a considerable backlog to clear to fill out the eight weeks All Stars will offer.

It’s no cakewalk for the Blockheads either. The teams have been given six whole weeks to renovate the properties whilst managing the builds themselves (normally site foreman Keith holds the overall building management together for the inevitable extensions) and when I had the chance to speak with them the exhaustion was evident despite their positivity. “We’ve loved watching everyone else do it since we had a go,” says Amity Dry, “So Phil and I figured what’s the harm in doing it again?!” “Well, we’re not sleeping for a start,” chimes in Phil Rankine, Amity’s husband. “We may be at Bondi but we’ve only gotten down to the beach twice,” he laments.

The contestants are immediate in offering how happy they are to be involved with The Block again, but it’s very clear that they’re all struggling from very limited sleep, over-work and stress. Then inevitably there’s an interruption from a tradie wanting confirmation on something, and an order to chase, and furniture to exchange or return to ensure there’s enough money to complete this room. The timeframes for delivery are near psychopathic – who else completes a kitchen install from a bare shell of a room inside five days??!! Blocking Block-tastic.

Julian Cress & Sarah Armstrong with Amity – all smiles until you remind them that there’s another series yet to film.

Visiting Dan & Dani’s place, the Boss was off collecting a tradie friend from the airport as Dan pushed himself through fatigue to nail up a frame for their kitchen space, though he did have a moment to share how proud he was of a space he’d created in their home for the last judging. Josh was knee deep in floorboard replacement as Jenna balanced the budget and tidied their bedroom – both acknowledging it’s harder for them in Sydney with the lack of contacts, but that’s not slowing them one bit. Duncan was stealing the brief moment to suck down a cigarette on the footpath – a moment of personal serenity amidst the tide and demand of competitive renovation (Mark was absent after falling ill & requiring hospitalisation the day before I visited).

It’s obvious from seeing the rooms completed so far that all eight contestants have worked their backsides off, and absolutely have come out swinging with the intention to win. The design and dressing of the rooms is stunning, and while some choices surprised this hardened reality fan, all four houses are a credit to the contestants involved. Even the judges are impressed. “They’ve all taken their skills to the next level,” offers judge & resident interior design royalty (HRH) Shaynna Blaze. “As judges we’re always surprised each week when we attend to inspect the rooms and we’ve been very impressed with all the teams and what is emerging as the design themes for their houses.”

Even in my short visit there was a controversy that entirely shut down one of the houses pending a visit from the engineer. Those involved figured it was best to go shopping than mope on site overseeing expensive tradesmen sit idle and a grumpy site foreman put up protective barricading. Such is life on The Block – you never know what’s going to go wrong next and sometimes you just have to roll with the punches – because what’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, your house could fall down, for one…

The Block All Stars – coming in 2013, Ch9.