Meeting aliens and stealing props: A day on the Lego Masters set with Hamish Blake

There’s a long-running joke in Australia’s media, marketing and advertising community that no-one understands what we do. Explain it all you like, but parents, partners, prospects and punters still stare back blankly. “Huh?”

So, how would you reveal what you do to an interplanetary visitor? How would you disect the weird and wonderful perks and politics to an alien who has even less context and connection? I ask this question of Lego Masters host Hamish Blake in a bid to break up the monotony of his press circuit.

Don’t worry, the classics – What makes this show different? Why do consumers love it? What’s changed between seasons? How do you expect it to rate? – will be rolled out. But for now, the aliens.

Blake is, if only momentarily, thrown.

“This is a conversation I’m having with the alien?,” he asks in the Melbourne warehouse where episode nine of the second season of Lego Masters is being filmed.

“Yes” is all I offer in response. I can’t give him more time to formulate a whimsical and witty answer. After all, if an alien arrived and demanded to know what on Earth the Lego Masters phenomenon is, it’s unlikely Blake would be afforded time to think about it. He should just know.

“How self absorbed,” Blake laughs at this alternative reality in which he’s suddenly the centre of the universe.

He begins dramatically creating the encounter with my fake alien visitor.

“‘Hey mate, I appreciate you travelled across the galaxy, and I am interested in the technology of the ship, but can I just tell you what I’m doing at the moment for my job?’”

Blake has to get back in front of the camera shortly as the contestants do battle with some of the 3m Lego blocks on the set behind us, so I buckle and give him some additional context for the encounter.

“Let’s assume that they’ve asked, and it’s not you bringing it up. You’ve covered off all other things – all other things,” I offer.

“It really is a competition about ideas, and not just about who can have the best idea, but who can have the best idea for that particular challenge,” he explains. “Because you need to have an idea that works, that’s going to look awesome at the end, but that you can a) pull off, and b) pull off in the amount of time that you’ve got available.

“So it really is an ideas battle against the clock.”

Blake has, in this hypothetical, nailed the message that a Lego building competition is so much more than adult play time.

That is, until he makes the mistake of asking me for further details about the demanding, but underprepared, alien.

“Wait, does he know what Lego is?”

“No,” I decide, in this game which has far fewer rules than the one unfolding behind us. There’s still a bit more time on the clock, after all.

“It’s a cool, interlocking brick system that I invented, and I’m sort of the President of the planet, so he’s done the right thing by coming to me.”

And there, on display, for me and my imagined alien, is Blake’s seemingly effortless self depreciation and disarming charm which has seen him shake-up the shouty overly enthusiastic Reality/ Competition Show Host trope.

He can make fun of you, but make you either unaware, or thankful, that he’s done it.

Nine’s head of content production and development, Adrian Swift, knows that Blake’s schtick helps differentiate the show.

“We can’t see it without him,” Swift admits. “You’re always a little bit careful to go ‘Is the show all about one person?’ But, what Hamish did was completely subvert the paradigm of reality TV shows. Which, not only did that work in Lego – because it’s such a ridiculous idea, this sort of big, drum-crashing crescendo reveals of things built with tiny plastic bricks, so it leant itself to that – but I guess it just, what it allowed us to do was have a great deal of fun with the idea, so that not only did you actually enjoy the build themselves, but you kind of felt like you were in on the joke as well.

“So, a huge part of [the show’s success] is Hamish.”

This subversion happens when I dare to ask Blake about the ratings. This time, the mistake is mine, and there will be no cliched, stock-standard answer from Blake.

I admitted I never saw last season’s mammoth ratings for Lego Masters on Nine coming.

“Don’t tell me you’ve discovered what’s been rumoured for years, which is ‘Who knows?’ Oh my God, don’t tell me it’s not an exact science? Oh my gosh – after all these years of believing it was,” he exclaims.

Doubling down on my mistake, I admit that we at Mumbrella knew Married At First Sight (MAFS) would do well, but we didn’t bet on Lego Masters being in the same ballpark.

“Oh, who was the bold person in the office sweep who had heard about MAFS?,” he quips, completely diminishing my crystal-ball gazing achievements.

Lego Masters’ high ratings last year, he says, weren’t a surprise, but they were a relief.

Blake on the Lego Masters set marvelling at a new build

“We have so much fun making the show, so the numbers are nice, and the network – it’s great for the network. And it’s awesome that families enjoyed it.

“But from us inside the show, you just want people who will enjoy the show to find it. You just want something to do good enough that you get to do it again. And so, the reward for us is getting to do it again.

“And also, it’s lovely, it was a very unexpected thing that so many families – the feedback we would get is that so many families watched it as their family show. And they had a ball. So, for us, that was super gratifying.”

Swift says he doesn’t have a specific number in mind to determine success, but he has faith the show will perform.

“I think Lego will launch really well. I don’t have a number in my head, but it will launch really well,” he says.

“I think in commercial television these days, I think the jig-dancing threshold is probably anything over 900,000, but look, you’re always hoping for more than that, aren’t you?”

Beyond the perks that come with ratings, there are other small victories and rewards for coming back for a second season, Blake reveals, as I revert to the standard question of ‘What’s different this year from the last?’

“You’re sitting on it, mate,” he says, gesturing to the two couches we are occupying in the steaming hot warehouse in Melbourne’s Flemington, surrounded by wires, the occasional errant pigeon and the hustle and bustle of producers, runners and publicists rushing around the set.

“We have like three couches, so you don’t have to sit in the control room. So the season two perks are flying high. You’re sitting on one of them, sitting on a bit of a season two couch. We’ve got two other chairs out the back in the make-up room, there’s like two comfortable chairs now. Honestly, this is, from my perspective, the biggest difference.”

Sure, but what will viewers notice? Why should they come back for more – bearing in mind I was asking these questions before either Blake or I (or our new alien overlord) knew we’d be on COVID-related lockdown?

The viewers will, he insists, appreciate the season two couches.

“Viewers will be like, ‘God, those guys look rested. They look a little comfier this season.’”

Shifting to the more serious talking points, Blake concedes that the challenge was balance – and not just Lego structures balancing on shaking platforms. The show now has contestants who have seen last season. The challenges need to be inventive and innovative, without being impossible, so that contestants are challenged and viewers engaged.

It’s not ‘Build Something Fun Out Of Lego’ Day, he says. It’s game day.

But just like last year, there’s no faking it.

Alluding to other reality formats, Blake says there’s no room for frauds or fakes.

“You could be TV savvy,” he says of the contestants, “but you can’t fake being a good builder. You could possibly fake your way onto other shows. But if you can’t build Lego, we will notice.”

There are perks for advertisers and brand partners associated with the show too, Swift says. Shows just need to make sure they capture the spirit of what a brand wants, and run with it.

“If you can capture the spirit of what the advertiser is trying to achieve, and then feed them back something that you know will work in our environment, I’ve rarely had people go ‘Absolutely, not, we just want our idea’. I don’t think that’s ever happened, in a very long and inglorious career in commercial television,” he posits.

“Provided you can go back with something, and not just back with something that you want, what you need to do is go ‘Right, okay. They’ve asked for this. Why do they want that? What campaign is that part of? What are they trying to achieve? How can we at least go part way to doing that, without making it look like someone stabbed the show in the heart?’”

Brands on board this season who Swift and the team at Nine are trying to work with without stabbing the show in the heart include Wonder, Honda and Kmart.

Bread and tiny plastic building blocks? How does that work? Sure, Kmart sells Lego, but bread?

It does, however, make sense, Swift insists.

Wonder is partnering with Lego for a viewers’ choice competition

“It’s like anything, as long as the sponsorship makes sense and you’re not trying to ram it in and make it feel like, what possible relationship does this have to that?,” he says.

“Both Kmart and Wonder White make sense. Wonder White makes sense because it’s all about making sandwiches for kids, so you’re talking to that audience. It’s basically a viewers’ choice competition. So Brick Man makes the big decisions on the ground, but what this allows the viewers to do is run a completely, standalone, separate competition, where the viewers get to pick the ones that they really like. And that makes logical sense for us, because it’s interesting to see what they pick. It makes logical sense for them, because there’s a big prize attached and it talks to their audience.

“Kmart obviously sells Lego, so you can see how those things work.

“And frankly, the Honda integration just worked incredibly well. People were completely fascinated by the [Lego] Honda [Civic Type R], which weighed about twice as much as a real Honda [Civic Type R] weighed, and cost about four times as much to make. But we’ll do that again, probably on an even bigger scale. It’s about capturing people’s imagination and allowing them, rather than just looking in on the world, to play in our world. And I think for all those three major integrated sponsors, the sponsorship makes sense, and it allows them into our world in a way that’s logical.”

Blake, too, has found a way to integrate with the Lego brand. Just, in his instance, it’s more of a personal brand, than a commercial one.

It’s become a running joke on set that Blake steals Lego pieces for himself, his children, and to make trinkets for his wife.

Blake in a rare, non-Lego-stealing moment on set

3m Lego pieces surely means there are plenty to go around? What’s a few missing pieces?

But even Blake, the thief, concedes there are that many pieces for a reason.

“There’s like 5,000 different pieces of Lego, then there’s like 30 colours. So, you’re at 150,000 bricks if you just had one of everything in each colour. So to have like thousands and thousands of white bricks which you need, or grey bricks, that’s where I think a lot of the volume goes, just so there’s enough. Because who knows what kind of problem they have to solve.

“Suddenly if everyone’s like ‘Well I need 500 white three-stud L-bricks’, you need to have 500 white three-stud L-bricks. So, I think for the contestants, it’s just every contingency is covered for whatever they might need.”

So if every brick matters, why is he siphoning them?

“Last season I would try and make something every day to bring home from the set, but I was running out of ideas. My wife would be the first to tell you that some of them were pretty weak. Towards the end, she’d be like, ‘Well, I think you just phoned in today’. [But] it’s a tradition.”

In one instance, he tried to convince his wife, Zoe, he’d made her a Lego Negroni, because they fancy a tipple of the Italian cocktail – “but it was like five Lego bricks stuck together with one red brick at the bottom”.

So instead of making undrinkable block cocktails, now Blake just takes home the figurines.

“That’s why if you see me on the show with a big plaster cast, you’ll know it’s fake and I’m just shoving Lego down the side,” he says.

“I actually think I want to wear a lot of top hats this season,” he says, continuing the joke. He begins pretending he’s back on set, where he’ll have to be momentarily anyway. “‘Well guys, another day, another build, and I hope you don’t mind the sombrero. The studio lights are a bit bright for me,’” he says, mimicking stuffing tiny plastic men into his oversized hat.

The contestants though, he says, are far more inventive and innovative, and successful, in their efforts to use Lego pieces to create something from nothing.

Blake with this year’s contestants

“And I’m building a six-brick Negroni to be met with disdain from my wife.”

To read the full chat with Hamish Blake and series producer AJ Johnson, click here. To hear Adrian Swift, Nine’s head of content production and development, on this week’s Mumbrellacast, click here. 

Vivienne Kelly travelled to the Lego Masters set as a guest of Nine. The show premieres on Sunday night. 


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