Twenty years on, The Block’s co-creator won’t consider downing tools

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When Julian Cress, with creative partner David Barbour, came up with The Block, all the way back in 2003, the possibility of it entering its 19th season two decades later did not enter their minds. “Absolutely not,” says Cress. “We were surprised and grateful to get the first series to air.”

This is nothing strange. Getting any show on TV is a huge achievement without worrying about how long it’s going to last. But last it did, and more. Of all the reality franchises that have adorned Australian television, none has matched the home-renovation juggernaut for sustained popularity, as year after year it has brained the competition in the ratings. With more than 800 episodes in the can and season 19 on the horizon, interest in The Block doesn’t appear to have run out of steam. (The Block airs on Nine, owner of this masthead.)

Julian Cress, who created The Block with David Barbour in 2003, on the set of the 2020 season in Brighton.Credit: Luis Ascui

As one of the men who came up with the concept, Cress is in the ideal position to muse on just what it is that has kept The Block going. What’s it got that others don’t? “Certainly real estate has been our national conversation in Australia, as much as football and cricket, for the last 20 years and probably a lot longer,” the producer says. “We seem to have an obsession with real estate, which is great for The Block, obviously.”

But just making a show about real estate is not enough to get you through two decades – as many would-be imitators have discovered. “People aren’t just watching a show because it’s about real estate. I think it’s because each series presents as quite fresh, and that’s because the location changes. The location of the show is fresh each season. Last year we did a tree change, moved out to the country. This year we’re doing original 1950s homes that are untouched in the suburbs.”

It’s a salient point: while shows such as Survivor might move to a different physical location each year, they are essentially just playing out the same game on another field. In The Block, though, the location is the challenge. Where the show goes determines what the contestants have to do. Changing the location changes the game, making for a fresh concept every year. This is also important for keeping the contestants on their toes. There’s always a risk with a long-running reality show that those who apply to be on it will be a little too familiar with how it works, too savvy about the show’s ins and outs to generate the tension and drama that comes from throwing the unexpected at participants.

“The people we’re casting come to it as fans of the show,” says Cress. “So it’s important that we give them a challenge they’re not expecting. If we were doing the same show in the same location over and over – if we were still doing apartments in Bondi all these years later – it wouldn’t be as much of a challenge to the contestants, and therefore we wouldn’t get the kind of content we need to make the shows entertaining.”

Casting, of course, is the key element to any reality show. The premise can be perfect, and you can keep refreshing the format as much as you like, but if you’re not picking the right people you might as well pack it up. According to Cress, casting has nothing to do with how well contestants hold a hammer. “It’s not about that at all. We frequently cast couples on the show who have no background. If you look back at where the show started, Phil and Amity are the perfect example. She was a singer, and he was her manager. Their renovating experience was zero, but they went on to win our All-Stars series,” says Cress. “It’s not a requirement to do The Block that you’re a tradesman. The only requirement is the kind of energy and enthusiasm that you need to survive 12 weeks of it, around the clock. It takes a lot of willpower, energy, creativity and competitive spirit to get through three months of doing that every day.”

“Blockheads” Eliza and Liberty on day one of the 2023 season.

Of course, it’s a fairly gruelling process for Cress, the other producers and the crew who have to co-ordinate the reality behemoth for those three months. As for the renovation game itself, he’s an old hand whose roots in the whole pulling apart and putting back together malarkey go back well beyond the birth of The Block.

“I’m the son of two struggling artists who really only made money to feed the family from renovating homes and moving up the property ladder. I grew up with a paintbrush in my hand,” says Cress. After all those years of doing the work and 19 seasons of turning it into TV gold, is there no temptation to simply sit back and relax, to enjoy the fruits of having devised one of Australian TV’s most lucrative franchises?

Speaking from France, where he is taking a well-earned break, he laughs. “Dave and I have come to terms with this fact, but we were both salaried employees of the Nine Network when we came up with the idea, so we don’t own it, they do. So, we’re still working for a living, mate!” Not that this bothers him particularly. “Even if we did own it, it wouldn’t make a difference. I don’t think we’d have any interest in retiring. When we’re in production, we do seven days a week, 120 days in a row, and there isn’t one day that I’d rather be doing anything else.” Satisfaction in a job well done: what could be more The Block than that?

The Block (new season) is on Nine and 9Now, Sunday, August 6, at 7pm.

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