In all the years I’ve done set visits to The Block, none has ever been as unusual as Brighton.
Sandwiched in between two lockdowns when Melbourne was gently re-opening, I was maskless, elbow-bumping, social-distancing, careful not to touch surfaces. Around me construction workers were brushing past getting on with the job just as, I suppose, most of the construction industry was doing in Stage 2.
At the time there wasn’t one positive case in the municipality of Bayside. But 2020 has been a topsy-turvy year. As of yesterday there are now 107 active cases in the same vicinity. Thankfully production has finished on The Block Brighton, save for its annual auction.
Producer Julian Cress was forced to halt filming for almost six weeks, but kept construction going and builders employed. Remarkably, he is delivering his show on time to Nine, to underpin the network’s third and fourth quarters. But stopping filming was one of the biggest calls he has ever had to make.
“There was so much uncertainty towards the end of March,” he recalls. “Scott Cam was coming to site every day to give contestants updates on what was happening. On one day, he turned up and said, ‘Look, we’ve spoken to various ministers in the government. We believe that we’re okay to push forward so we’re going to keep going.’
“We pulled the pin on production.”
“But on the very next day, he was back here saying, ‘Overnight, New Zealand and the UK have locked down their entire societies. I’m too afraid that that’s going to happen here. I think that the only thing we can do is get you home to your kids and your loved ones.’ So we pulled the pin on production.
“I’m glad I did because we got one of our couples home to their four year old daughter in Queensland, about eight hours before they closed the borders. So I think in hindsight, it was the right decision.”
As per The Block‘s model, builders kept working on the shell of the homes waiting for contestants to return for interior fit-outs. Despite all the stress -and there was plenty- Cress kept cameras rolling on his cast, in effect delivering some of the most dramatic footage the show has ever captured.
“We knew we had a damn good show”
“Imagine you’ve got contestants who are watching the Prime Minister’s press conference together in the morning, and then having to finish the bathroom in the afternoon. That’s interesting TV. All of that uncertainty, that trepidation and emotion around being away from your children, having to finish a bathroom, delivered for the judges, was all being filmed by our cameras every day. We didn’t miss any of it. So we knew we had a damn good show, the trick was would COVID stop us being able to finish it?
“Fortunately the government didn’t shut down construction so I decided to keep all of the builders gainfully employed. We didn’t want to put people off work, but sadly, we had to do that with a lot of our crew. So that took a heavy toll. ”
Filming resumed and was completed before Melbourne went back into Stages 3 and 4. This time there were new measures.
“Getting the contestants to agree to come back was one thing, but protecting them and protecting us was the other thing. So we put in a whole range of measures when they came back. We have had a nurse here full time, on site. She’s here at 7am every morning and temperature checks every single person who comes onto this site and records that.
“We have gone through the entire building of each house and put signs at every door about how many people can be in that room so that we can follow the 4 square metre rule.
“So if a crew is in there filming with a contestant, talking to their plumber, no one else can enter the room. Somebody has to leave before somebody else can come in.
“Everybody understands that there is a risk”
“Every single person on site including all the crew, and contestants were given the flu shot by us when they came back. These are the sorts of measures that we’ve put in place to try and limit the risk. But risk minimisation is all it is. But everybody understands that there is a risk and it’s a heightened risk because it’s a global pandemic. And I have to say that their willingness to come to work every day and continue and do what they’ve done has been pretty astonishing.”
Producers also had to juggle travel and border limitations for talent including Scott Cam (who stayed permanently in Melbourne during some shooting periods), Shelley Craft, judges Neale Whitaker and Darren Palmer. It was largely achievable, if stretched by limited flight choices.
This season sees 5 period homes from the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s renovated by five teams. Cress points to 2017’s season in Elsternwick as amongst the show’s most successful for building traditional homes rather than townhouses or apartments.
“We couldn’t just simply replicate the Elsternwick series”
“We couldn’t just simply replicate the Elsternwick series- we had to do something different. So that’s where the idea of doing five different decades came from,” he continues.
“Now that we’re towards the end of production, I feel like it’s been a really successful move. It’s been really exciting watching the contestants go through that challenge of trying to renovate their home in the style of the decade. There was a lot a research and none of them were expecting it when they got here. That was a complete surprise.”
The five teams include four couples and one father & daughter team, the first, save for a previously eliminated pair.
“We’ve got a couple from the outer western suburbs of Sydney. We’ve got a couple from a very remote, rural farm in South Australia. We’ve got a couple from Queensland. She’s a barmaid at the bowlo, and he’s a plumber. We’ve got a couple from Perth. He’s a male model and a chippy and she’s a schoolteacher,” says Cress.
“We have a very Greek father and daughter from Melbourne who have been absolutely wonderful because watching that dynamic play out between a father and a daughter.
“To see them come together and renovate a house has been probably one of the most entertaining things that I’ve done on this show.
“It’s truly one of the funniest and often most emotional -I hate to use this word- ‘journeys’ I’ve seen. What they’ve been through together in the last 12 weeks has been fascinating to watch.”
The five, whose success on the series hinges on the yet-to be filmed auction, were chosen from another tidal wave of applicants. After 15 Seasons, there is still no shortage of people wanting to get on The Block.
“They broke our website”
“This year, they broke our website, and we upgraded it in order to manage the applications,” Cress observes.
“It’s always in the tens of thousands of full applicants that come through. It’s a lot to wade through, but it’s great when they do because the more people to choose from the better.
“I mean, casting is the critical thing for this show. Without a good cast, we’re screwed.”
The Block begins 7pm Sunday on Nine.