Season 14 of The Block may not be the last for producer Julian Cress, but it holds particular significance for him.
Not only is he a local himself, but his family roots are in St. Kilda. He wants The Gatwick renovation to transform the area for future use.
“My hope is, on top of making a great TV show, that we are also able to deliver an everlasting benefit to the community of St. Kilda,” he tells TV Tonight.
“And as a local myself I’m looking to a time in the future where people say ‘The Block did something meaningful as a catalyst.’ So this series, for me, is kind of a legacy project. My mother was born in Mary St. right behind us. So my family comes from here. It means a lot to me personally to be doing this project and to get it right.”
Cress and his team surely have plenty to work with. The three storey building on St. Kilda’s main strip, Fitzroy Street, opened as a private residential hotel in 1937. It changed hands in 1944 and again in 1977 when Ronald and Vittoria Carbone offered it as a boarding house with the view that “everyone deserves to be treated with respect.” By 1998 twin daughters Rose and Yvette were running the building once owned by their parents. But the face of St. Kilda and its social challenges were changing fast.
“They…were running it as a support for a lot of disenfranchised people”
“They were fantastic community-minded women who inherited the building from their mother and were running it as a support for a lot of disenfranchised people who had nowhere else to go,” he continues.
“But it was far easier to manage them as alcoholics or even heroin addicts, but less easier once ice hit the streets.”
Melburnians consequently know The Gatwick for all the wrong reasons, as a focal point for police attention. Residents and traders have begrudged its character and local impact. Cress acknowledges Nine could have used the site as a series prior to Elsternwick in Season 13, but it was crucial residents were relocated first and not have it backfire on the network.
“Nobody wanted that,” he admits. “There are some very, very positive stories to be told about the people who lived here. There were people living here for 30 years having to share a bathroom with people who just got out of prison and were addicted to amphetamines. There was a lot of violence and it wasn’t a very conducive atmosphere for a husband and wife from Poland who had been living here for 30 years.
“They’ve now been resettled by the local St. Kilda housing associations, and they now have an apartment with an ensuite for the first time since they fled Poland in WW II.”
During renovations earlier this year producers enjoyed plenty of strong community feedback.
“We’ve never had a warmer welcome than Fitzroy Street”
“It was a tricky situation for the people sitting immediately adjacent to this building,” Cress explains.
“While we’re welcomed into the suburbs where we make The Block we’ve never had a warmer welcome than Fitzroy Street, St Kilda.
“We’re only 200 metres from the beach so this should be as ritzy as the (eastern) ‘Paris End’ of Fitzroy Street, but for whatever reason it wasn’t I think can be partly laid at the feet of what was in this building previously.
“But I don’t want to dismiss the building as having an infamous history. I think it’s a very proud building as well. When it opened in the late ‘30s it was a pretty fancy hotel. I’m told Prince Phillip stayed here at one point. I believe he was billeted during the war.
“It’s a big wide street with trams running through it, wonderful sidewalks. This could be ‘Paris’ down here too. One day soon it will be.”
Hosts Scott Cam & Shelley Craft will welcome 5 new couples who will renovate a large chunk of the St. Kilda building (not all corners will feature on air) from a whopping 45,000 registrants. Upping the stakes once again, you guessed it, this is the largest reno the show has ever done.
“The audience doesn’t want to tune in to watch the smallest Block we’ve ever done!” Cress laughs.
“People would switch off in droves.
“It’s impossible not to get fireworks.”
“The cast that we choose are hugely competitive and highly entertaining who will give it their all. So when you put them all into a challenge that’s as big as this, it’s impossible not to get fireworks.
“We’re also at the point of casting people who are super fans. They really know the show they’re coming onto and they’ve usually applied 3 or 4 times to get there. So by the time we give them their shot, they give it everything in return.
“In the first series they had 12 weeks to renovate 72 square metres, and now we have rooms that are bigger than that.”
This year, remarkably, renovations have concluded before the first episode premiere. The show is tipped to run until late October and underpin Nine’s 3rd and 4th quarters.
Cress assures the show will deliver all the fire and colour synonymous with the show as well as stunning before and after reveals.
“We will restore it to what it looked like in 1937”
“We will restore it to what it looked like in 1937 on the outside, with beautiful modern apartments on the inside. And they’re the biggest we’ve ever done,” he adds.
“Getting to see inside The Gatwick I’m hoping will bring people to the first episode, and the all of the crazy shit that’s gone on since we’ve started, will keep them there.”
The Block airs Sunday – Wednesdays on Nine.