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Sir Humphrey Appleby

Yes, Minister.
~ Sir Humphrey's catchphrase.
The wheels are in motion.
~ Sir Humphrey's other catchphrase.

Sir Humphrey Appleby, GCB, KBE, MVO, MA (Oxon), is a fictional character from the British television series Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In Yes Minister, he is the Permanent Secretary for the Department of Administrative Affairs (a fictional department of the British government). In the last episode of Yes Minister, "Party Games", he becomes Cabinet Secretary, the position he retains during Yes, Prime Minister. Hawthorne's portrayal won the BAFTA Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance four times: 1981, 1982, 1986 and 1987.

Originally, he was portrayed by the late Nigel Hawthorne, however, he was currently being played by Henry Goodman in a new series of Yes, Prime Minister.

Character and history

Sir Humphrey is a master of obfuscation and manipulation, often making long-winded and periphrastic statements such as, "In view of the somewhat nebulous and inexplicit nature of your remit, and the arguably marginal and peripheral nature of your influence within the central deliberations and decisions within the political process, there could be a case for restructuring their action priorities in such a way as to eliminate your liquidation from their immediate agenda.". He is committed to maintaining the status quo for the country in general and for the Civil Service in particular, and will stop at nothing to do so — whether that means baffling his opponents with technical jargon, strategically appointing allies to supposedly impartial boards, or setting up an interdepartmental committee to smother his Minister's proposals in red tape. Throughout the series, he serves as Permanent Secretary under the ministry of Jim Hacker at the Department of Administrative Affairs; he is appointed Cabinet Secretary shortly before Hacker's elevation to the role of Prime Minister.

Sir Humphrey won a classical scholarship to Winchester College before reading Classics at Baillie College, Oxford, where he got a First. After National Service in the Army Education Corps he entered the Civil Service. From 1950 to 1956, he was the Regional Contracts Officer, an assistant principal in the Scottish Office, on secondment from the War Office (where he was responsible for a serious mistake that was revealed in "The Skeleton in the Cupboard"). In 1964, he was brought into the newly formed Department of Administrative Affairs, where he has worked until his appointment as Cabinet Secretary. He is recommended for the KBE early on in the series in "The Official Visit". The Dean of Baillie describes him as "too clever by half" and "smug" ("The Bishop's Gambit").

On Humphrey's possible private situation, Jonathan Lynn commented: "We always supposed that Sir Humphrey lived in Haslemere, had a son at Winchester and a daughter at Bedales and that his wife was a sensible woman who made cakes for church socials and enjoyed walking the family bulldog. I think that Humphrey's hobbies were reading (mainly biographies), listening to classical music, and occasionally visiting the RSC, the National Theatre or the Royal Opera House, where he was on the Board. His holidays were probably spent walking in the Lake District and, occasionally, sailing in Lymington. On the whole, he had a slightly warmer relationship with his dog than his family.".

In many ways, Sir Humphrey represents the perfect technocrat. He is pompous, arrogant, egocentric, discriminatory, and elitist, so he regards his less-well-educated minister with some contempt. He frequently uses both his mastery of the English language and even his superb grasp of Latin and Greek grammar to perplex his political master and to obscure relevant issues under discussion. However, his habit of using language as a tool of confusion and obstruction is so deeply ingrained that he is sometimes unable to speak clearly and directly even in circumstances in which he honestly wishes to make himself clearly understood. He genuinely believes that the Civil Service knows what the average person needs and is the most qualified body to run the country, the joke being that not only is Sir Humphrey, as a high-ranking Oxford-educated Civil Servant, quite out of touch with the average person but also that the Civil Service identifies whatever is "best for Britain" as being "best for the Civil Service". Jim Hacker, on the other hand, tends to regard what is best for Britain as being whatever is best for his political party or his own chances of ree-lection. As a result, Sir Humphrey and Hacker often clash.

He still holds women to be the fairer sex, and he is thus overly considerate and courteous, frequently addressing them as "Dear lady". Like Hacker, Sir Humphrey enjoys the finer things in life, and is regularly seen drinking sherry and dining at fine establishments, often with his fellow civil servant Sir Arnold Robinson, who was Cabinet Secretary throughout Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey is also on the board of governors of the National Theatre and attends many of the gala nights of the Royal Opera House. His interests also extend to cricket, art and theatre.

Humphrey is usually obsequious, smooth, calm, and collected within his element of bureaucracy and procedure, but has become so adept at working within and maintaining the system of government that, whenever anything unexpected is sprung on him, whether it be Hacker ordering him to negotiate with a rogue councilor, or honors in his department being made dependent on economies, Humphrey immediately crumbles, on a few occasions being reduced to stuttering out garbled platitudes such as "the beginning of the end" or "it cuts at the very roots", although he usually regains his composure pretty quickly to push things back on track.

Humphrey is incredibly manipulative and intelligent, constantly ready a with a plan to defeat his ministers ambitions. He is also highly capable at adapting his plan to meet what ever complications emerge, or has a back up plan ready in case his original one fails. However Humphrey's arrogance occasionally gets the better of him, and as the series progresses Hacker slowly learns how to play the fact that Humphrey always underestimates him in his favour.

According to the foreword (dated 2019), of the book The Complete Yes Minister: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister by the Rt. Hon. James Hacker MP, a novelisation of the series, he spent his last days in St Dympna's Hospital for the Elderly Deranged, after the "advancing years, without in any way impairing his verbal fluency, disengaged the operation of his mind from the content of his speech". This contradicts the date of death given in Politico's Book of the Dead.

In a Radio Times interview to promote the first series of Yes, Prime Minister, Nigel Hawthorne observed, "He's raving mad of course. Obsessive about his job. He'd do anything to keep control. In fact, he does go mad in one episode. Quite mad.".

Sir Humphrey has been appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB), Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) and a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO).


In Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey maintains a friendly and (outwardly) deferential but adversarial relationship with his new minister, Jim Hacker. When keeping the Minister busy is not sufficient to prevent him from proposing new policy, Sir Humphrey is not above deceiving or even blackmailing him. Never the less he often shows a level fondness for his minster, mixed in with his contempt. He has a slightly more amicable relationship with his subordinate, the Minister's Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley. He frequently lectures the naïve Woolley in the realities of political matters. When Woolley's loyalty to the Minister is inconvenient to Sir Humphrey's plans, he readily makes oblique threats about Woolley's job prospects should he defy Sir Humphrey. However, he is equally quick to defend Woolley from outsiders. His closest on-screen friendships are with Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary during Yes Minister; Sir Frederick "Jumbo" Stewart, Permanent Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and the banker Sir Desmond Glazebrook. He is married, although his wife plays virtually no role in either series and is only seen once: next to him in bed in the Series One episode "Big Brother".

Real-life references

Sir Humphrey has become a stereotype associated with civil servants, and the phrase "Bowler-hatted Sir Humphreys" is sometimes used when describing their image. Satirical and investigative magazine Private Eye often refers to Sir Humphrey with the definite article 'the' to indicate someone in the civil service the magazine considers of similar character, e.g. "[name] is the present Sir Humphrey at the Department for Rural Affairs". In the 1930s "Sir Horace", after Sir Horace Wilson, a senior official close to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, became a soubriquet for a civil servant with delusions of grandeur; this is thought to have influenced the choice of the name "Sir Humphrey".

A spoof obituary for Sir Humphrey appears in Politico's Book of the Dead, written by his creators, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, which includes some biographical details, including dates of birth and death, which he shares with Nigel Hawthorne, the actor who portrayed him.

Sir Humphrey was voted the 45th greatest comedy character in Channel 4's 2007 "The World's Greatest Comedy Characters" poll. He was also voted 31st in a poll of "100 Greatest TV Characters", also on Channel 4.

Upon Nigel Hawthorne's death, the following appeared on the Editorial page of The Ottawa Citizen under the heading "No, Minister":

"It is sadly that we report on Sir Nigel Hawthorne, elsewhere referred to as Sir Humphrey Appleby. While it would be premature to commit ourselves to a definitive position on his merits or even his existence, a committee is being struck to consider the possibility of a decision, in the fullness of time, to regret his passing, if any."

The character was resurrected for the 2010 general election campaign in a series of short sketches on BBC Two's late evening current affairs programme Newsnight. The sketches were written by Jay and Lynn, and Sir Humphrey was played by Henry Goodman.

Henry Goodman also played the part of Sir Humphrey in the 2010 stage production of Yes, Prime Minister.