Celebs are being forced to dive for puzzle pieces, lug bags of sand through waist-high water, and work their way through mazes made of sharp sticks. Who did this? And why?
Richie Barnett and Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck are pictures of concentration. The former rugby league players are facing off, tasked with balancing black rubber balls on long-stemmed paddles while manoeuvring their way through a network of rusted wire frames. It looks like a puzzle Lara Croft might find while raiding a tomb. “So much is riding on this!” screams host Matt Chisholm as Northland’s summer sun beats down on their backs. “It’s do or die!”
That tension ratchets up another notch when Tuivasa-Sheck, a mostly happy-go-lucky Celebrity Treasure Island presence, misses a checkpoint, his ball sliding into the sand. He has to start over. Despite team mates yelling slogans of support like, “Slow down Richie!”, Barnett manages to make the same mistake. The look that crosses both their faces as they regather their balls and run back to the start tells a similar story. They’re thinking: “Why is this so fucking hard?”
That, says the show’s executive producer Greg Heathcote, is entirely the point. “You’re always trying to up the ante, you’re always trying to come up with something bigger or flasher,” he says. Those tasks are the most important part of the show. “The challenges are the catalyst for the story. Something will happen in a challenge and … it will change the way contestants feel about one another. They’ll go back and it will dominate what happens in camp.”
That’s exactly what happens. Tuivasa-Sheck eventually succumbs to the poised presence of Barnett, yelping, “Holy snap!” as he’s eliminated. Art Green, who engineered his elimination by pitting him against the more poised Barnett, celebrates. While all that is going on, Angela Bloomfield ponders a request, delivered via secret parchment paper under her seat, for a secret alliance with opposing team members. It was chaos. It was TV gold. Heathcote smiles. “I was there for that,” he says proudly.
The celebrities didn’t know it, but that paddle challenge, and the rest of Celebrity Treasure Island’s deliberately daunting tasks, had been formulated six months earlier. “It’s the very first thing we do,” says Heathcote. Producers gather at Warner Bros’ Auckland headquarters and map out the season, crafting one imposing creation after another. A whiteboard full of ideas is produced. “We work on the environments the challenges are going into,” he says. “If we’re in a maritime situation, we know we can do water challenges.”
From there, they head to their art department and discuss options with their builders. Sometimes, for either financial reasons or safety concerns, or both, doubts are expressed. “Eventually, we wear them down to the point they’re on board,” says Heathcote. “They’re Kiwi builders, they’re just clever buggers. You don’t have to give them a plan. You can literally draw something on the back of a napkin and it will come back and it will work.”
Something, though, seems different this season. The challenges are bigger, sturdier and scarier. Heathcote says shows like Ninja Warrior and Wipe Out have upped the stakes. “You used to be able to get away with just doing something on a beach and running around,” says Heathcote. That’s no longer the case, with celebs being put through their paces in intricately devilish ways. After just a few episodes of the latest season, they’d amassed enough bumps and scrapes to fuel an ER department, being sent up, over, under and around all kinds of contraptions, all in the name of charity.
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At one point, they were tied together while lugging giant sacks of sand, tasked with chasing each other through waist-high water. At another, they maneuvered through a maze made of jagged sticks. Medics and safety officers are on hand, says Heathcote. “Occasionally we might mitigate the challenge based on a medic’s advice,” he says. But celebs know what they signed up for. “It is a game. The challenges are designed to knock them around a bit. They’ll get the odd bruise and the odd scrape … you just don’t want any broken bones.”
Wary of the contestants’ wide range of ages, skills and physiques, producers try to find a mix of puzzles, balancing acts and physical challenges. “What you don’t want is a tug of war,” says Heathcote. Producers scour YouTube and social media looking for inspiration. The best ideas are kids’ toys come to life. He’s working on one idea now that’s like a huge version of the game Connect 4. “We’re sitting there going, ‘How can we supersize that? How can we make that a two storey-high structure that they have to work off? You’re taking this childish thing and making it ridiculously large.”
All of this is a far cry from the challenges created for early seasons of Treasure Island. Heathcote was involved in those too, when celebrities like Mark Ellis and Lana Coc-Kroft would face off in tests that look entirely tame these days. In the 2001 season, Frank Bunch and Nicky Watson received a code that sent them wading through a muddy lagoon. “We were there before Survivor,” says Heathcote. “No one really knew how to play the game.” These days, Survivor is coming up to its 41st season, and physical challenges have become a mainstay of reality TV, appearing on everything from Love Island to Taskmaster.
The celebrities taking part are smarter too. Contestants spend time picking over the rules before each challenge, asking what they can and can’t get away with. Heathcote’s worst example of this was a few years ago. “Two rugby league players on opposing teams got in a physical fight over the rules of a game that involved giant balloons,” he says. “They were just so invested.” He had to break up the fight. “In my head, I thought I was breaking up a fight between two kids. When I got there, they were six-foot-four.”
Contestants like to push the rules. Chisholm’s on hand to chide them this season, but hosts haven’t always been so stern. Heathcote remembers the late reality star John ‘Cocksy’ Cocks turning up to a buried treasure challenge finale with a metal pole that he’d found washed up on the beach. He won by stabbing it into the sand and finding the treasure that way, saving precious digging time. “Coxy changed the game forever,” says Heathcote. “We used to bury the prize money at the end. We don’t bury the treasure any more.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is just how seriously players take the game. It might all be for charity, but, as Buck Shelford’s “If you don’t stick to the game plan, I’ll get right up ya,” outburst in the first episode showed, they’re there to win. “Every year they turn up and it’s a weird game of pirates (but) they get invested so fast,” says Heathcote. “When you’re sleeping rough and eating there, it quickly becomes your world.”
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