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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: Working-class culture... that's so middle class

"It pains me that working-class culture is sneered at and ridiculed. Fifty years ago it was seen as noble and dignified." This is Jon Cruddas, in yesterday's paper, answering a reader's question as to whether he thinks of himself as a class warrior. It was a remark that the sub-editor responsible thought sufficiently striking to pick out in large, red type as a pull-quote... and it struck me, for two reasons. First, I wondered who was supposed to be doing the sneering and then, more to the point, I found myself asking what would count as "working-class culture", both now and 50 years ago.

It surely isn't very easy to answer that question in 2009. What would qualify? The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing? They can certainly muster the popular support – and it would be hard to argue that they are ineligible as culture. But even to offer those as possibilities would seem to put you in the frame as a potential sneerer, and I'm guessing that it's not what Cruddas had in mind. His answer implied a continuity, something that was recognised and honoured 50 years ago but is now the subject of callow contempt. And I just can't think what this might be.

One possibility would be those elements of working-class culture that have, over the years, been the subject of jocular condescension and television sketches. Things such as dog-racing, say, or pigeon-fancying or leek-growing: those bodies of specialised knowledge and specialised devotion which crystallise around fixed communities. They would surely qualify as working-class culture, but at a time when we're fretful about the dissolution of traditional patterns of behaviour, who would ridicule them?

And if Mr Cruddas means things like brass bands or choral societies, he's surely on thin ice, too. If these figure at all in popular middle-class culture, they are treated with great respect; sentimentalised precisely as dignified and noble... and endangered by binge-drinking, Asbo-ignoring, broken Britain.

Indeed, one can't help feeling that the notion of "working-class culture" is, in itself, an irredeemably middle-class way of looking at things. It carries with it a whiff of that benign condescension that Lee Hall captures so well in his play The Pitmen Painters, about a group of Ashington miners who arranged an art appreciation class for themselves and then took up painting themselves. There's a tussle in the play – both comic and serious – between tutors who want to preserve the raw "authenticity" of the miners' responses and men who don't want to be merely authentic pets.

It was, intriguingly, echoed by Channel 4's recent exercise in public art consultation, The Big Art Project, in which ordinary people were involved in the process of commissioning a piece of public art. One heartening sequence of the resulting series showed a panel of ex-miners reacting, with entirely justifiable disappointment, to a Spanish sculptor's proposal to erect a giant miner's lamp on their chosen site. He'd dumbed down to please them and they spotted it.

In fact, the defence of working-class culture, as something unique to one group of people is, more often than not, maintenance work carried out on an imaginary fence. I could be wrong about this and Jon Cruddas may be able to point to activities – noble or dignified – that are the sole preserve of working-class communities. But I doubt it, and if he's essentially saying that we shouldn't sneer at mediocre art or ridicule popular entertainments when they are ridiculous, he's flat out wrong. Culture (or even hobbies for that matter) shouldn't have a social class at all.

Is the subject of evolution really too hot to handle?

I confess I was a little sceptical when I first read of Jeremy Thomas's claim that Creation – a film about Darwin's development of the theory of evolution – has been unable to find an American distributor because its subject matter is too contentious.

There are other reasons, after all, why a British costume drama of ideas might not find a multiplex buyer ( Variety's review faintly praised it as "likely to earn just respectable critical support ... a medium specialty performer"). Other reasons, too, why a savvy producer looking for a deal might drum up the "too hot to handle" angle.

On the other hand, Creation does feature an Oscar-winning actress as Darwin's devout wife (Jennifer Connelly) and it has sold well in other markets. Even if the subject matter was particle physics, you can't help feeling, American distributors wouldn't have been quite as reluctant. And it's certainly true that 150 years on from the publication of On the Origin of Species many Americans remain depressingly resistant to its central revelation.

A 2006 survey found that only 14 per cent of adults thought evolution was "definitely true" while around a third rejected it. A Gallup poll a few years earlier reported that 45 per cent of respondents accepted a Biblical account of creation. The meagre silver lining is a modest increase in the numbers of those who now accept evolution, but believe that God is working it from behind the scenes. Do we have to wait another 150 years for a majority to catch on?

Heinz beans, fake fags and the Rover's Return

If the Government does eventually lift the ban on product placement on television – as Ben Bradshaw, the Culture Secretary, has hinted it might – it will be great fun to see how it works its way into drama. Reality shows will be an absolute welter of logoed products, I would have thought, with participants ostentatiously climbing into branded cars and sipping from cans carefully angled towards the camera. But drama, particularly soaps, are likely to proceed more cautiously.

How long will it be, though, before the simple benefit of having your beer on tap at the Rover's Return fades and a bit of extra cash is offered for a helpful line of dialogue ("By! That were just what I needed!"). And will there be special exemptions from the rule? Characters on Coronation Street still smoke regularly, and one imagines a cigarette company would pay handsomely to squeeze a pack-shot in.

So, will it be Heinz beans but faked fags? And if the BMA get their wish and introduce much tighter controls on alcohol advertising, does everyone congregate around a pint of Coca-Cola instead, or do we then see the return of Newton and Ridleys?