Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Napoleon

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Napoleon

Article excerpt

I adore Andrew Roberts. We go back a long way. Once, on a boating expedition gone wrong in the south of France, we had a bonding moment almost Brokeback Mountain -esque in its bromantic intensity.

Roberts had hired an expensive speedboat for the day (as Andrew Roberts would) and we'd left very little time to get it back to harbour and avoid being stung for a massive surcharge. Problem was, the seas had got very rough and our anchor was stuck fast. We manoeuvred the boat this way and that to no avail. There was nothing for it. Someone would have to dive down to free it.

It wasn't easy. The water was cold and dark, visibility near-zero, and the anchor was way below comfortable free-diving distance. Various, increasingly desperate efforts were made by our party. But only two of us got as far as the bottom. I remember it now, Roberts and I, wrestling side by side in the murk, knowing that the survival (well, almost) of our whole party depended on us. Then the pure elation as together we worked the anchor loose and were finally free to burst, gasping, to the surface. 'Yes, he may be a bit effete and sleek,' I thought. 'But I'd have been happy to have him co-pilot my midget submarine on Operation Source...'

Since those early days I have watched, admiringly, as young Andrew has gone on to do quite well for himself -- most recently with his hugely acclaimed biography Napoleon the Great . Roberts's thesis is that, far from being an almost Hitler-like dictator, Napoleon was in fact utterly fab and we should all admire him as much as Roberts has done since the age of ten. His new three-part BBC2 series is part of this rehabilitation exercise.

Roberts makes a charming and persuasive advocate. He has walked most of Napoleon's 60 battlefields; he's read the letters to Josephine (from which poor Napoleon emerges as a pathetic, needy husband -- forever pleading for some wifely sympathy or interest that she's generally far too busy whoring herself elsewhere to provide); and he's been all the way to St Helena and personally tried the Emperor's deathbed for size.

What I'm less convinced by is the premise that Napoleon's reputation needed rescuing. …

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