Around the block and back again

Veterans of <i>The Block's</i> first series, Amity Dry and her husband, Phil Rankine, return to the construction site for <i>The Block All Stars</i>, which premieres on Monday.
Veterans of The Block's first series, Amity Dry and her husband, Phil Rankine, return to the construction site for The Block All Stars, which premieres on Monday.

IN ANYONE'S language, $448,000 for a few months' ''work'' is a windfall. For a couple in their 20s setting out on their life together and their careers it is, in the words of Dani Wales, the recipient of one such win in 2012's season of The Block, ''life changing''.

By contrast, Amity Dry and her husband, Phil, walked away from The Block's first season, in 2003, with a more modest prize of $60,000. Ten years later, they live in a rented house in Adelaide and, with two young children, hope their participation in the reunion show, The Block All Stars, will help them lay down a deposit on a house of their own.

While some elements of the renovation competition seem almost impervious to change - the uniform of tool belt (for him) and cut-off jeans (for her), the gender-based wink-wink conspiracies, the lack of ethnic diversity, the endless product plugs (sorry, ''integrations'') - many of the rules of engagement have shifted substantially in the decade since it was created by former Channel Nine producers Julian Cress and David Barbour.

Back then, it ran one night a week; the contestants held down day jobs while renovating small, two-bedroom apartments at night; the ratings waxed and waned (The Block's second season was occasionally out-rated by bland lifestyle show Hot Auctions); and the concept of reality-show ''nobodies'' becoming one-name household celebrities was in its infancy.

When it was refashioned as a stripped week-night show, challenges and extraneous competitions were added to fuel the hungry machine. It morphed from being primarily a DIY renovation show to a prime-time soap opera, replete with heroes and villains, tantrums and tears.

As the ratings rallied, sponsors lined up for a piece of the action. The stakes rose exponentially, in terms of both the scope of the renovations and the prizemoney - save for the notable exception of 2011's season, in which three of four cottages in Richmond were passed in at auction and the contestants walked away with very little to show for their efforts.

''We were the happy couple, newlyweds,'' recalls Dry, who was a fledgling 24-year-old singer with no design experience when she and her husband appeared on the show in 2003. ''We had fun. We knew we weren't the best renovators, but we thought we could be the most entertaining. We were conscious that we were making a TV show. We weren't the arguing couple and were hopeless in some tasks. We made fun of ourselves. People related to that. It was the makeover boom; every man and his dog had a home-renovation show.''

Dry had no expectation that The Block would make her a household name, but it did. Her first single, The Lighthouse, which was released while the show aired, propelled her on to the top-10 charts.

Now, as then, she is hoping to use her exposure on The Block All Stars to promote the tour of a musical she's written. ''I'm a working performer. I know there are windows of opportunity. The Block launched my career. I know what [a TV show] can do.''

Typecast as ''the villains'', Dani Wales and Dan Reilly were modern-day incarnations of The Honeymooners' Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Block 2012 - or so the show would have us believe, with its incessant focus on the couple's bickering, sniping and difficulty dealing with setbacks.

''We walked into the show saying, 'We're not going to change in front of the camera,''' Reilly says from the Bondi house the couple renovated for this spinoff series. ''We are who we are, and if we're in a fight and the camera walks in, we're not going to stop. It's just that they didn't show our good times as well as the bad. We were a bit annoyed by that.''

According to Wales, ''everyone on The Block fought'', but she acknowledges that the public was fixated on them.

But as their participation in the new show indicates, she takes the slurs in her stride and insists that they knew what they were getting themselves into.

''We wanted to wear our hearts on our sleeves and wanted the blood and guts and tears and tantrums, because that's real-life renovating. I haven't met anyone who hasn't been almost divorced from building a deck, so to get through what we went through and come out on top like we did, I think we can be proud of ourselves.''

Wales laughs off the suggestion that after the All Stars, there could be another round of The Block for them in the future. For Reilly, the physical hardship, sleepless nights, stress and pressure-cooker conditions make another shot unlikely.

''I used to watch the show and think it would be easy. It wasn't until we were in South Melbourne that I thought, 'How are we going to get through this?' You're running on adrenalin and caffeine every day. You're never mentally prepared for it.''

The Block All Stars premieres on Monday on Channel Nine.

This story Around the block and back again first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.