Comment: New Labour needs to ally itself with middlebrow culture

Donald MacIntyre on the people's art

It may seem surprising that the Department for Education brought in stars from Brookside to plug National Reading Year. If parents did not watch so many soaps, their children might read more. But then nothing is more powerful than television. When Oprah Winfrey plugged one of Toni Morrison's books, it famously shot up the best-seller list. And since we have no Oprah the help of Brookside, which will henceforth feature more on reading in its storylines, should not be sneered at. Launching the scheme - which gives every school pounds 1,000 for books - the education minister Stephen Byers pointed out that education did not operate in a vacuum and needed "wider support". And then he went on to say that reading was part of what made us a more "unified and cohesive society".

He is right, of course. It is hard to imagine anything more socially excluding than an inability to read, which is one reason why the scheme is so admirable. But our expecations from reading should not stop at universal literacy, vital as that is. What, as well as whether, we read, matters too. Last year Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, made some interesting remarks about low cultural expectations. He expressed some dismay that The Lord of the Rings had been found, in a survey by Waterstones, to be the favourite book of the century. Woodhead was not trying to say that every pupil should be made to read Proust, but rather that there is more to 20th century literature than the escapist fantasy world created by Tolkein. He could, but he didn't, have gone on to bemoan the increasing apartheid between fiction for the masses and, that bewildering construct of the late 20th century, the "literary novel".

Today's division is all too often between the fashionable and sometimes inaccessible fiction which wins the big prizes on the one hand and Barbara Taylor Bradford and Jeffrey Archer on the other. But was Dickens a literary novelist in today's sense? Was Graham Greene? And what about JB Priestley or even Somerset Maugham? Or George Orwell? It may be that what has happened is the sad decline of middlebrow; not at all the same thing as mediocre - though it is a term which is sometimes used as if it were.

But if you doubt that middlebrow or if you prefer it, everybrow, flourishes, then consider the biggest cultural event of last year, the spectacular success of the film The Full Monty. It makes a point which a lot of people who talk, mainly in relation to television, about dumbing down - those who rail against it as well as those who who say bleakly that there is no alternative to it - miss: that artistic brilliance and a mass audience are wholly compatible. If you read most of what has been written about The Full Monty - or listened to what Jane Asher said about it when it won yet another prize, at the Evening Standard awards ceremony broadcast on Sunday night - you'd think it was a slight but cheeky little film about male striptease. It isn't. Among other things it's about how people cope with the deranging effects of economic change in a post-industrial society. This is an important, current, subject, with a very high recognition factor for large sections of the enormous audiences that have queued to see it not just here, but even more remarkably in the United States.

What is special about The Full Monty is not just that it was made in Britain but what it says about Britain. And what is just as interesting about it is that it utterly defies cultural categories. It isn't lowbrow or dumbed down; but it isn't elitist either. If Gordon Brown's commendable interest in helping the British film industry produces more work like this, all power to him.

Which brings us to the main point: of course, the popularity of The Full Monty has, first of all, powerful implications for those who make and commission television programmes. But it may also mean something for public policy. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, is one of the more upwardly mobile members of the Cabinet, having recently been appointed to the A- team making the case for welfare reform. But in the harsh world of New Labour's budgetary constraints, he has an especially hard task in fighting for more public spending. On the one hand, he has an especially stroppy client group who vie with each other to make the most high flown attacks on the perceived philistinism of the Government for being mean about the arts. To make it worse, he has thrown in his face at every meeting, and at every awards ceremony he is obliged to attend with the great and good of the arts world, the accusation that the Dome is gobbling up over pounds 465m of lottery money which could otherwise be distributed to the performing and plastic arts. (In naked, self-serving public relations terms, it seems worth, even at this late stage, the Government trying to save Greenwich Theatre, due to close in the rapidly expanding shadow of the Dome.) On the other hand, his is a natural Cinderella among budgets.

He has however one advantage which some other spending ministers do not have. At least part of the wider cultural budget ought to be considered in the light of Tony Blair's commitment to education. National Reading Year sits uneasily with a steady reduction in the funds spent directly on books in public libraries - about 15 per cent since 1979 (not to mention the steady and dispiriting reduction in library staff and opening hours). Museum charges - which Smith has mercifully seen off, at least for the time being - are patently counter-educational. But for the arts budget to benefit from the commitment to improved spending on education will almost certainly require a different approach by the arts lobby itself.

In the Thatcherite 1980s, it tended to argue in frankly producerist terms - that excellence in the arts, including the most elite manifestations of it, was an economic good, because it was a labour intensive industry that expanded tourism and increased national prestige. That isn't irrelevant in the 1990s, but it is perhaps of not as much clout as its potential, in the widest sense, to educate. At the most banal, would it really be so philistine to tie some theatre subsidy more closely to the management's willingness to perform texts studied at GCSE or A-level - or to tour regularly in some of the most culturally deserted parts of the country? Or that film subsidy shouldn't also be geared in part to stimulate reading - "one of those ties" as Byers put it "that bind us together as a unified and cohesive society." Ask not only what the Government can do for the arts; ask also what the arts can do for a less divided society.

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