First broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 10/Oct/2005. 128kbps.
There was a spectre haunting the 2005 British celebrations of Trafalgar. Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated in 1805 and even more decisively at Waterloo in 1815, remains a figure of huge global fascination. The man the British demonised as Old Boney is as talked about as ever, appears on all kinds of commercial merchandise, and has a large international fan club.
The programme revels in the ironies and often bizarre touches this cult has produced. Chris Bowlby begins a journey around some of the cult's sacred places by recalling the extraordinary scenes in Plymouth in 1815 when Napoleon, who'd surrendered to a British warship after defeat at Waterloo, held court on Plymouth Sound as adoring British crowds rushed to catch sight of him. The anxious British authorities hurried him into exile. But this only added to this mythical appeal. He goes on to explore in Dover how earthy British propaganda, setting puny Boney against robust John Bull, French cuisine against hearty plum pudding, had failed to cut Napoleon down to size.
In France he sees how the return of his body to Paris marked political resurrection, helped everyone forget his bad side, and how the commercial exploitation of this true celebrity left us such bizarre curiosities as Napoleon-shaped houses and Napoleonic dog food (now available on eBay). The final destination is the Waterloo battlefield, where the scene of final defeat has become a place of Napoleonic pilgrimage, and experts struggle to find a way of integrating the despotic French ruler into an image of modern co-operative Europe.
All this is accompanied by the songs that keep the mythology as alluring as ever, and the comments of international Boney watchers as diverse as the Australian couple bickering over his romantic appeal, the Japanese who buy him dressed in a kimono, the British who look forlornly for Wellington or Nelson souvenirs amidst the piles of Bonapartist merchandise, and the French woman living in Plymouth who just can't help admiring a bad man.