Around the block and back again

High stakes ... the cast of <i>The Block: All Stars</i>.
High stakes ... the cast of The Block: All Stars.

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 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 Rankine, 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 reunion show The Block: All Stars will help them lay down a deposit on a house of their own.

''How many chances do you get to win two or three years of income?'' the hopeful Dry says.

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 fundamental rules of engagement of The Block have shifted substantially in the decade since it was created by former Nine Network producers Julian Cress and David Barbour.

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 weeknight 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 prize money - 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,'' says Dry, who was a fledgling 24-year-old singer with no design experience when she and her husband appeared on the show.

''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.''

On the sweltering midweek afternoon The Guide visited the Sydney set in late 2012, the genius of the casting was obvious. Although all four couples knew exactly what they were signing up for, midway through their renovation job, each was in various states of meltdowns. Several were close to breaking point.

The four Bondi homes sit side by side and from the outside offer little advantage over the other. However, one couple, who we won't name here, appeared to have developed a slight advantage by quietly building an internal extension. Its reveal will certainly be a bombshell moment.

A fifth adjacent house is being rented by the producers to house camera equipment and production staff. It's a sight to behold. Each room crammed with cables and monitoring equipment.

Meanwhile, a makeshift editing suite has been set up in one of the rented house's bedrooms, where the group is monitored by production staff day and night.

When some interesting activity is detected in one of the houses, a camera crew is quickly dispatched to capture the action.

In one house, there is angst regarding the problematic install of a kitchen. ''I just don't know how we're going to finish this by the weekend,'' says one contestant, who appears genuinely distraught.

There is an awkward silence among the crew and cameraman before somebody off camera offers some light encouragement.

Most of the houses are brimming with tradespeople, space is limited and tempers occasionally fray. The surprisingly raw outburst points to just how much succeeding on the show means to the four couples.

The Block: All Stars

Channel Nine, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, 7pm.

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