How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom by Antony Jay

29 January 2008

In my undergraduate days, I wrote a massive honours thesis on my pet obsession at the time (and somewhat still, to this day): the 1980s satirical political comedy Yes, Minister. As part of my quest to get my hands on every bit of Yes, Minister merchandise I could find, I purchased the DVDs and the ‘Hacker diaries’, acquired a complete set of Richard Crossman’s three-volume Diaries of a Cabinet Minister (key background texts for much of the series), and managed to find the 1988 and 1989 day planners in near-mint condition. Yet I still scour the Internet in search of other items that I’m looking for…and this book was one of those items. I found it in audiobook format first before finding it in paperback — but more on that shortly.

How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom by Antony Jay

Antony Jay wrote How to Beat Sir Humphrey about a decade ago, and in it he has written a step-by-step overview of how ordinary citizens can combat government- or private finance-backed plans that they feel will be detrimental to their community — plans for development that can be as localised as an old building being torn down to make room for a supermarket, or as expansive as a proposed motorway extension. How to Beat Sir Humphrey describes how to organise an action group for best efficiency, ways to raise money and community awareness about the project, pitfalls to avoid at all cost, and how to potentially beat the local officials and the bureaucrats at their own game. One thing to note: the book is written with the intent of fighting British officialdom, so it’s possible that other countries might have different steps or bureaucratic levels that Jay doesn’t mention. But most of the strategies seem to have universal merit and application…such as festooning a local official’s car with yards and yards of ‘red tape’ as a mild protest to draw media attention to the cause.

Jay admits at the end of the book that the suggestions he gives in How to Beat Sir Humphrey are not wholly fail-proof. Sometimes, even one’s best efforts will not be successful, and the project will go through in spite of local disapproval. But he suggests that even the effort made to organise citizens in a civically responsible fashion is one of the things that strengthens our civil society, and that the game itself is really always worth the candle.

For fans of Jay’s television work, the audiobook release is an even better find than the original text itself. Why? Because the person who reads the audiobook is none other than Derek Fowlds, the actor who played high-flying civil servant Bernard Woolley with such pedantic charm in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Hearing Derek Fowlds reading the audiobook is an experience that almost borders on the bizarre. Listening to Bernard Woolley give you advice on how to combat Sir Humphrey Appleby and those of his ilk — you almost have to suspend disbelief in order to wrap your head around that set-up. It’s an extra little treat for those who enjoyed the original television satire.



  1. […] occasional observations of a contemporary historian, editor, writer, and bibliophile. « How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom by Antony Jay A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by […]

  2. Sounds very interesting.

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