BBC2’s Napoleon reviewed: does Andrew Roberts’s pet Frog need rehabilitating?

Doesn’t everyone know that Napoleon was the most brilliant and inspirational generals ever?

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

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. Haven’t we all known for ages that Napoleon was one of the most brilliant and inspirational generals ever? Isn’t it reasonably comprehensible, without too much special pleading, that his use of grapeshot against civilians during the French revolution and his massacre of 4,000 captives on the beach at Jaffa were a function of the exigencies of war, rather than Hitlerish nastiness?

But also isn’t it pushing it a bit — as Roberts almost treasonably did at one point — to be explaining away Napoleon’s rampant looting of Italy’s art treasures by suggesting that well, hey, it was just the same for half the stuff we’ve got in our own national collections? Citations needed, I’d say.

As for Roberts’s use of the word ‘progressive’ to describe Napoleon’s politics — without a hint of heavy irony — well, I’m sorry, but for me that was just one step into the enemy camp too far. For God’s sake, man! What has all that time in the salons of New York done to you?

Obviously, though, I shall eagerly be watching the next two episodes, first, because Roberts’s enthusiasm for his pet Frog is so touching and infectious and, second, because I shall be fascinated to see how he deals with Waterloo. Napoleon woz robbed, presumably.

Mind you, I do see his problem. Even if you’re as popular, lucid and entertaining a historian as Roberts, you’re not going to get a book (or TV) series on Napoleon commissioned unless you can persuade the arbiters of dumbed-down taste that you’re saying something new. Another victim of this tendency is that Armada: 12 Days to Save England series I was quite nice about the other week, but which I now realise is an epic fail.

Its problem is that it is just trying too hard to impress. There are too many historians; too many dull-as-ditchwater scenes of Elizabeth and her ladies-in-waiting; there’s too much frenzied pointing up of stuff we allegedly never knew before; and there’s way too much repetition of the same old points, presumably because, to justify the lavish production costs, it has been bulked out to three hours when 90 minutes would have done.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Battle of Waterloo anniversary, next Thursday.

  • MildredCLewis



  • Steve Sant

    Yes well, I agree that Napoleon doesn’t really need defending , a great military leader no doubt but quite why the BBC chose Roberts version of events I cannot imagine. It’s a bit like asking McCartney to be objective about Lennon.

  • Landphil

    Dan Snow defeated the Spanish Armada – not a lot of people know that.

    • Zalacain

      100’s of films, books and series on the defeat of the Spanish Armada, almost nothing on the defeat of the English Armada the following year.

  • Henry Oldmixon

    Was this a review for the public, or an embarrassing personal love letter to Roberts that got sent in by accident?

    Roberts’ problem as a tv historian is that the programme seems to be as much about himself as about his rather grander subject; the same applies to this horribly sycophantic review, which is an pity since when he’s not putting himself front and centre in his own articles, in Giles Coren-esque manner, Delingpole can be a good read. Failed here though.

    • mikewaller

      Regarding Roberts, what do you expect of a guy who formed an emotional bond with Napoleon at the age of 10?

      • Terry Field

        Greater profundity than you are able to offer, I suspect.

        • mikewaller

          The man is unquestionably very able and a prodigious worker. But insofar as he made the same mistake as I did in failing to see how appallingly the Iraq war would work out, I cavil at “profundity”. To ring that bell I think it bit more Olympian detachment is called for.

  • Frank

    Yes, Napoleon sorted out the shambles of post-revolutionary France, but he was a dictator and wanted to be a dictator (as such he involved France in endless battles to shore up his raison d’etre). This pattern of rescuing France from shambles was repeated in subsequent generations and arguably reflects France’s predilection for strong political figures (Petain / De Gaulle / Mitterrand / etc) due to the country’s apparent inability to have the kind of quiet effective democracy that France needs. This tendency is currently manifest enough to make Sarko think that he can have another bash!
    Perhaps Andrew Roberts dreams of a like strong political figure who will come forward and rescue Britain?

  • MikeF

    Apparenty, according to the Dan Snow narrative, the Armada engendered an outbreak in England of ‘Hispanophobia’. I didn’t know that before…

  • Dave Hollins

    I have been interested by all the hype surrounding “rent-a-quote” Roberts and his hagiography and especially the comments about his being on most of the battlefields. It rather summed up his approach when he talked about Lodi. Between the French and Milan (22 miles away) he declared was the river Adda. Erm, get a map out and you will see that the French were on the western bank of the Adda and that Milan is near the western bank of the same river. The Austrians were on the eastern bank and the road to Milan was thus already clear for the French as the Austrians had withdrawn across the river. Napoleon attacked the Austrian rearguard as he needed the propaganda of a military victory over them, but it was an entirely unnecessary battle. Indeed, I wrote this up in Age of Napoleon magazine in 1996 – still, Roberts isn’t going to let facts get in the way, is he?
    Hang on, he claimed the Code Napoleon was the basis of much European law today. In fact, as the last hagiographer Cronin admitted, the Revolutionary government had already started work on standardising French law to centralise their control and with a choice between Roman Law (notably the Code Justinian) and a form of English common law, they opted for the former as it was already widely used across Europe. Napoleon signed off the work of the committee. That “absolutist oligarchy” of Austria had already introduced a Criminal Code and various civil codes – and come to that, Leopold II was dead before the Revolutionary Wars began in 1792.
    Still, why let facts get in the way?

    • Hegelman

      I agree. Napoleon is a heavily over-rated figure. He turned the innovative ideas of the French Revolution into a family fiefdom and made what had been great and new into something old and petty.

  • Sean L

    But he *was* a Hitler-like dictator in that he could command men and win their allegiance purely by the force of his personality. And by any measure Hitler himself was a great man, by definition, as must anyone who can rise from such humble beginnings, far more so than Napoleon’s, to command a great nation as he did. The subsequent defeat and atrocities of the extermination camps don’t alter that anymore than the Russian debacle Napoleon’s hitherto awe-inspiring accomplishments.

  • Dan O’Connor

    To avoid having to dive down to free an anchor , a good seaman ties a small orange coloured float buoy with a line to the hole in the front of the anchor , and making sure it is long enough to bob around on the surface . This means you can slowly motor the boat forwards and tug at the anchor from its front and free it .

  • Augustus

    “As for Roberts’s use of the word ‘progressive’ to describe Napoleon’s politics…”

    Perhaps he had Victor Hugo in mind, who wrote in Les Miserables:

    “If you wish to gain an idea of what revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to acquire an idea of the nature of progress, call it To-morrow. To-morrow fulfils its work irresistibly, and it is already fulfilling it to-day. It always reaches its goal strangely. It employs Wellington to make of Foy, who was only a soldier, an orator. Foy falls at Hougomont and rises again in the tribune. Thus does progress proceed. There is no such thing as a bad tool for that workman. It does not become disconcerted, but adjusts to its divine work the man who has bestridden the Alps, and the good old tottering invalid of Father Elysee. It makes use of the gouty man as well as of the conqueror; of the conqueror without, of the gouty man within. Waterloo, by cutting short the demolition of European thrones by the sword, had no other effect than to cause the revolutionary work to be continued in another direction. The slashers have finished; it was the turn of the thinkers. The century that Waterloo was intended to arrest has pursued its march. That sinister victory was vanquished by liberty.”

    Yes ‘Napoleon woz robbed’ of victory at Waterloo, and Wellington would have been beaten without Blucher’s army: “Give me Blücher or give me night”.

    Again Victor Hugo:

    “On the 18th of June the moon was full. Its light favoured Blucher’s ferocious pursuit, betrayed the traces of the fugitives, delivered up that disastrous mass to the eager Prussian cavalry, and aided the massacre. Such tragic favours of the night do occur sometimes during catastrophes.”

    “If ever ‘sic vos non vobis’ was applicable, it certainly is to that village of Waterloo. Waterloo took no part, and lay half a league from the scene of action. Mont-Saint-Jean was cannonaded, Hougomont was burned, La Haie-Sainte was taken by assault, Papelotte was burned, Plancenoit was burned, La Belle-Alliance beheld the embrace of the two conquerors; these names are hardly known, and Waterloo, which worked not in the battle, bears all the honour.”

    • Perseus Slade

      I have read that Blutcher wanted to call it the Battle of La Belle Alliance,
      but Wellington thought Waterloo sounded much better.

      • Jabez Foodbotham

        Fitting name though it is, I suppose the fact that the place was the site of Napoleon’s battle HQ was a strong reason not to use it. Besides, it would be a clumsy name for a station,

  • MartinWW

    I greatly enjoyed Andrew Roberts’ first programme – that is, after I muted the sound to get rid of the intrusive and relentlessly constant background music (which wasn’t background for much of the time), and used the subtitles. I would have liked to have heard the narrator, but my sanity came first.

  • Terry Field

    WHEN will the British media DUMP the dreadful bluddee SNOWS????!!!!!!

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      Alas these neiges d’antan show no sign of disappearing. In fact they continue to accumulate and Villon is no guide here.

  • jeffersonian

    ‘As for Roberts’s use of the word ‘progressive’ to describe Napoleon’s politics — without a hint of heavy irony — well, I’m sorry, but for me that was just one step into the enemy camp too far. For God’s sake, man! What has all that time in the salons of New York done to you?’

    For some, the allure of French étatisme and dirigisme never ceases.

  • trace9

    Interesting to see that self-deletion of comments (below), produces the same ‘this comment was deleted’ as the mod-effort, & without identification of rthe chap. As to Robert’s moribund efforts, one might pertinently quote Cambronne..

  • Faulkner Orkney

    Delingpole is like anchovies, nobody seems to like them but so many recipes seem to feel the need to have them. Time to go James, you’re not funny or clever.

  • John P Hughes

    It is not easy to enunciate the word ‘Waterloo’ (which is a Flemish name) clearly if you speak French as your mother tongue. The top French popular singer La Grande Sophie (Sophie Huriaux) shows how the French say the word in this clip:
    This was in 2012 when she was inviting fans to come and see her at Waterloo – that’s Waterloo, Quebec, Canada.
    ‘LGS’ speaks (and sings in) perhaps the most perfect French today – her voice is clear and unaccented. So this is the best prononciation of the famous name you are likely to hear.

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      I recall in the early days of Eurostar when it’s London terminal was Waterloo, how a few minutes out of Brussels as it gathered speed it would flash through a station clearly marked Waterloo often to the surprise of passengers from faraway lands.

      • John P Hughes

        As Michael Caine might put it, not a lot of people know that…. I remember the route the Eurostars took, which was the old line into Brussels from the Lille direction, but not the station name. The village must be almost on, but just north of, the linguistic dividing line between French and Dutch, which one can trace running west to east across Belgium (south of Brussels) by looking at place-names.