BUILD­ING BLOCK

Free-to-air TV gets back into the prop­erty boom with one of the genre’s most suc­cess­ful for­mu­las first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

PROP­ERTY TV, which had all but died out on free-to-air chan­nels, re­turned with a vengeance last week when jug­ger­naut The Block, su­perbly re­alised and pro­duced, re­turned to Nine for a fourth se­ries. The first two sea­sons, shot in Bondi and Manly in 2004 and 2005, were very suc­cess­ful in the rat­ings, with the first av­er­ag­ing 2.4 mil­lion view­ers an episode, and more than three mil­lion watch­ing the sea­son fi­nale. Last year’s third ef­fort, hosted by gar­ru­lous for­mer builder Scott Cam, was less tri­umphant.

The show, as much ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary as quasi-ed­u­ca­tional prop­erty se­ries, lost to Ten’s Glee and Seven’s Bor­der Se­cu­rity on most nights, but it was steady, and con­cluded with slightly more than 1,500,000 view­ers.

Aus­tralia hasn’t been talk­ing prop­erty the way it once did, and other prop­erty show for­mats have been seen as too risky for most of the decade on com­mer­cial TV, so it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see if the hy­per-en­er­getic The Block can hang in and main­tain the fu­ri­ous pace.

‘‘ While you could find food and tal­ent shows all over free to air, if you wanted prop­erty pro­grams the only place to find them is on pay TV,’’ says Frances Bon­ner, who teaches film and TV at Queens­land Univer­sity. ‘‘ I think it is sim­ple to see their ap­peal when prop­erty is be­ing seen as the safest in­vest­ment in the eco­nomic cli­mate at the mo­ment.’’

She sug­gests those able to in­vest or neg­a­tively gear are more likely to be able to af­ford pay TV than those out of the prop­erty mar­ket through rental, so­cial hous­ing or other cir­cum­stances.

‘‘ Fur­ther­more, the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is not one to en­cour­age those in the lat­ter cir­cum­stances to dream of buy­ing a rental prop­erty,’’ Bon­ner adds. ‘‘ So the as­pi­ra­tional driver of free-to-air prop­erty shows prob­a­bly isn’t pow­er­ful at the mo­ment. It’s un­doubt­edly eas­ier to dream of be­ing dis­cov­ered as a stand-up comic or a de­cent cook.’’

Bon­ner is right. Even if you move away from sell­ing-the-home shows, there isn’t much do­mes­ti­cally fo­cused pro­gram­ming of any kind. Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens and Gar­den­ing Aus­tralia are close to all there is on free-to-air net­works. This is quite a sig­nif­i­cant change from about five years ago when houses were be­ing auc­tioned or read­ied for it across a cou­ple of chan­nels.

In that time Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens has re­mained our favourite makeover show, pop­u­lar with a reg­u­lar mil­lion view­ers. Held to­gether by ir­re­press­ible host Jo­hanna Griggs, it’s as hec­tic as ever. It’s hard to be­lieve it’s been on our screens for al­most 18 years. Re­mem­ber when ac­tors Noni Ha­zle­hurst and John Jar­ratt fronted it, still mar­ried and full of good cheer, hap­pily adding ex­ten­sions to their house in the Blue Moun­tains?

These days Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens is slicker and far more crowded with ideas and perky pre­sen­ters. The show’s gen­tle and be­nign blend of aes­thetic and prac­ti­cal ad­vice is de­signed to ap­peal to the widest au­di­ence.

As with Burke’s Back­yard, a show that al­most in­vented life­style pro­gram­ming in this coun­try, it’s as if Griggs and her team want to rein­vig­o­rate com­mu­nity life, of­fer­ing fan­tasies of home and fam­ily that in their hands ap­pear so at­tain­able.

The Block, though, is harder and comes straight out of the tough-love school of re­al­ity TV, set within a melo­dra­matic frame­work of dead­lines, time con­straints, com­pe­ti­tions within com­pe­ti­tions, elim­i­na­tions and auc­tions. Up­ping the melo­drama is a sound- track that seems lifted from an ac­tion movie and a cam­era and edit­ing aes­thetic — fast zooms, rapidly jux­ta­posed short scenes, and quickly mov­ing track­ing shots — that Ri­d­ley Scott might ad­mire.

The new se­ries be­gan with eight de­ter­mined couples — all pretty and young, some of the men tradies and some of the women hair­dressers — com­pet­ing in a tense 24-hour, do-or-die elim­i­na­tion chal­lenge. This was stripped nightly through last week to see who would make it through to the ma­jor thrill: the full prop­erty ren­o­va­tion.

With lit­tle more than what they’re wear­ing, the fi­nal four couples — Josh and Jenna, Polly and Waz, Rod and Ta­nia and Ka­t­rina and Amie — are to be taken out of their com­fort zones and dropped into a fren­zied eight-week con­test. They have to ren­o­vate equally di­lap­i­dated houses — and we’re talk­ing se­ri­ously crapped-out — in the in­nerMel­bourne sub­urb of Rich­mond.

On a bud­get of $100,000, they will fever­ishly com­pete to show their skill in de­sign, plan­ning, bud­get­ing, ex­e­cu­tion and even­tu­ally sell­ing. (The women will ut­ter the words ‘‘ Oh my God’’ thou­sands of times.) And, of course, they’ll be pre­tend­ing to be­have nat­u­rally in front of the cam­eras, with TV crews and seg­ment pro­duc­ers

ob­serv­ing them ev­ery minute of ev­ery day. This is a busy, busy show and the con­fected melo­drama is in­tense, of­ten over­pow­er­ing any sense of re­al­ism.

Bon­ner sug­gests that built into many prop­erty shows is ‘‘ a struc­ture which al­lows the ex­plo­ration of hubris, where fail­ure is a valu­able part of the show’’. The Block is a se­ries where no one wants to ad­mit they made a mis­take or botched a de­ci­sion. The in­ten­sity, and some­times the ag­gres­sion, is a lit­tle over­pow­er­ing at times.

It seems to be very dif­fer­ent on pay TV, where clev­erly pro­duced prop­erty shows en­gag­ingly crowd so many chan­nels, though most are im­ported, es­pe­cially Bri­tish. The best are ex­tremely clever TV.

Kirstie All­sopp and Phil Spencer’s fran­chise Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion and now Re­lo­ca­tion, Re­lo­ca­tion, Kevin McCloud’s Grand De­signs and Sarah Beeny’s Prop­erty Lad­der in par­tic­u­lar, em­body a shared viewer fan­tasy. They main­tain the pos­si­bil­ity of per­sonal re­demp­tion through self­im­prove­ment, es­pe­cially in hard times.

‘‘ From a 16th-cen­tury cas­tle or a 32-bed­room Ge­or­gian stately home to ver­ti­cal in­ner-city liv­ing or a trop­i­cal tree house, our view­ers can’t get enough of prop­erty shows,’’ says Ni­cole Sh­effield, gen­eral man­ager of the Life­Style Chan­nels. ‘‘ Whether they are rel­e­vant to their lives or not, they just love them and it con­tin­ues to be our most pop­u­lar genre.’’

She adds that Life­Style re­cently pre­miered Beeny’s lat­est show, Beeny’s Restora­tion Night­mare, the new Chan­nel 4’s se­ries in which Beeny re­stores her 97-room stately home in East York­shire. It has been the num­ber one non-sport pro­gram on the plat­form for weeks. ‘‘ And the fourth se­ries of Andrew Win­ter’s Sell­ing Houses Aus­tralia just fin­ished screen­ing and it reached over two mil­lion Aus­tralian view­ers,’’ Sh­effield says.

But the most durably pop­u­lar pre­sen­ters are for­mer pro­fes­sional prop­er­ties find­ers All­sopp and Spencer, who re­turn this week with an­other se­ries of Re­lo­ca­tion, Re­lo­ca­tion (their sev­enth), help­ing house-hun­ters chase their dreams.

Kirstie and Phil (known to fans by their first names only) are now phe­nom­e­nally pop­u­lar TV stars in Bri­tain. Their shows reg­u­larly at­tract au­di­ences num­bers well above four mil­lion and have peaked at just un­der five and a half.

The par­ent se­ries Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion has been run­ning since May in 2001 in Bri­tain and seem­ingly just as long here. The 13th se­ries is still clip­ping around pay TV on the Life­Style Chan­nel. Both are smartly pro­duced shows, and also a kind of in­for­ma­tive travel pro­gram as well, colour­fully nav­i­gat­ing cities all over Bri­tain.

In Re­lo­ca­tion, Re­lo­ca­tion, peo­ple look to buy a house, usu­ally out­side large ur­ban ar­eas, and also in­vest in a house or shop in the city, with the help of Kirstie and Phil. They lo­cate prop­er­ties, bal­ance bud­gets and jug­gle of­ten com­i­cally im­pos­si­ble pri­or­i­ties for their clients. The Bri­tish prop­erty mar­ket is still in a mess, so it’s harder than ever for am­a­teurs to nav­i­gate their way through the com­pli­cated prop­erty sys­tem.

Kirstie and Phil know the prop­erty game well. They are guides through the murky world of agen­cies and view­ings, and then help peo­ple work out what they re­ally want. This is not al­ways easy, which is, of course, part of the fun. As Bon­ner sug­gests, there is a great deal of plea­sure in watch­ing peo­ple mis­judg­ing their abil­ity to cope with un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions. But we also love the snoop­ing and the voyeurism and the in­evitable com­par­isons, made from our couches, with the way we live in our own prop­er­ties.

Kirstie calls her­self the ‘‘ ditzy girl with the cleav­age and the dark hair’’, but she’s highly in­tel­li­gent, street smart, doesn’t suf­fer fools, and was re­cently co-opted by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to give ad­vice on house-buy­ing.

Phil is a Ken­tish gen­tle­man farmer’s son, hand­some, charm­ing and long suf­fer­ing. In­creas­ingly he plays straight man to Kirstie’s comic re­lief, and cops her flir­ta­tious ban­ter with a re­silient smile. The two un­der­stand that fal­li­bil­ity is one of the best el­e­ments of this type of show — we love things go­ing wrong — and they ex­ploit this with glee.

Un­pre­dictable and spon­ta­neous, the hosts de­light in de­mol­ish­ing the con­ven­tions of their pro­fes­sion as trick af­ter trick is re­vealed. As they drive their in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the avail­abil­ity and emo­tional and fi­nan­cial suitabil­ity of var­i­ous houses, they never lose sight of the im­per­a­tive of send­ing them­selves up.

This week’s first episode of the new sea­son of Re­lo­ca­tion, Re­lo­ca­tion is one of the best so far, as Phil and Kirstie take on a search for a fam­ily whose lives cen­tre around their dogs. The plot is com­pli­cated for a prop­erty show, with the hosts hav­ing five peo­ple and six dogs for whom they have to find three prop­er­ties. The show is as funny as any sit­com as they try to net a hat-trick of homes to please a whole clan. DOGS are also at the cen­tre of Wil­fred, Eleven’s new US com­edy, a re­make of the orig­i­nal Aus­tralian for­mat. Or at least one dog, the pooch of the ti­tle, is cen­tral. This is a half-hour se­ries, nicely filmed and rather cutely di­rected, about a young man strug- gling un­suc­cess­fully to make his way in the world un­til he forms a unique friend­ship with Wil­fred, his neigh­bour’s pet. Ev­ery­one else sees Wil­fred as just a dog, but Ryan sees a crude and some­what surly, yet ir­re­press­ibly brave and hon­est Aus­tralian bloke in an un­con­vinc­ing dog suit with a drawn-on black nose. Wil­fred is cranky, some­times vin­dic­tive and ex­tremely gar­ru­lous, and has com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships with hu­mans.

I never re­ally cot­toned on to the orig­i­nal lo­cal ver­sion, which was based on an orig­i­nal short film that won Tropfest in 2002. It just seemed like one gag that seemed to re­peat it­self end­lessly. It was one of those shows where you just wanted to yell: ‘‘ Enough; that’s enough.’’

Eli­jah Wood ( Lord of the Rings) stars as Ryan in the US ver­sion and Ja­son Gann, who co-cre­ated and starred in the Aus­tralian se­ries, plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter, in what seems to be the same bad dog suit. They do pretty well but, as be­fore, the con­ceit seems too stretched, even though the com­edy is played at a fast belt.

I’m afraid it’s enough to put you off peo­ple who talk to dogs for­ever, es­pe­cially those women who are al­ways ask­ing them in­ti­mate ques­tions, and re­fer to them­selves as their dog’s ‘‘ mummy’’. The Block, Week­nights, 7pm, Nine. Re­lo­ca­tion, Re­lo­ca­tion, Wed­nes­day, 8.30pm, Life­Style. Wil­fred, Tues­day, 9.30pm, Eleven.

The cast of The Block

Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion’s Phil Spencer and Kirstie All­sopp, left; Ja­son Gann in Wil­fred, above

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