Judith Adams


Broadcast October 2012

Dramatisation in 3 episodes of Buddenbrooks, The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann


Produced/directed by Chris Wallis, Autolycus Productions

Banned and burned by Hitler, Buddenbrooks is Nobel prize-winning Thomas Mann’s first masterpiece, published when he was 25, in 1901.

Little known outside Germany (where it was dramatised for TV in 1979 and made into a 2008 romantic movie), it is a tender, witty, exquisitely detailed and ironically detached fiction emerging from his childhood in Lubeck. Mann’s tone is, in fact, perfect for radio.

Thomas Mann – the ironic German

In Lubeck in 1835 three generations of the Buddenbrook family celebrate moving to a new business/home premises (sold by a bankrupt family). By the end of the story the same house will be sold to a business upstart, Hagenstrom; for this nouveau Hanseatic sea-trading dynasty itself fails through its own inner decay.

We meet and follow Thomas, Christian and Antonie Buddenbrook who will spearhead its decline, until the next generation’s only hope, Hanno, willingly abandons his life as a musician before it can begin.

At the heart of the struggle is the corrosive incompatibility of the business and artistic sensibility: each fatal to the other.

Travemunde is on the treacherous Baltic sea which carries their fragile trading wealth. This is where Lubeck society retires every summer to bathe and take the waters, and where brief Buddenbrook rebellions flare: Tony falls in love, Christian whores, gambles and drinks and Tom eventually retires with his fatal ill-health. It is also where little Hanno finds passionate joy. It is that luminous and ruthless place (also exploited in Dombey and Son by Dickens and in Father and Son by Gosse) where the sea is a thrilling rival to the Father’s Authority.

Where Christian translates a skilled love for mimicry and his toy theatre into a prurient, passive and finally pathological passion, Tom and Tony renounce the heart in order to please papa and be partly proud. Their collective determinations are equally destructive to themselves and to their mercantile dynasty.

The last Buddenbrook child, Tom’s son little Hanno, a born musician like his mother, Gerda, but also with the genius to improvise, cannot or will not play the game at all. Ill with typhoid at sixteen, he cuts his strings when he chooses death as a way out of a world where appetite, ambition and brain can never feed the hunger of the over-sensitive and artistic heart.

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