Diary - Joan Bakewell

I took my grandson to St Paul's Cathedral to show him Nelson's tomb, but the entry charge is now £6.

There is no dumbing down. Official. At least not among television programme-makers. Tuesday night's prestigious Grierson Awards for 2002 celebrated an even broader range of documentaries than on previous occasions. And in each category the standards were impressively high. This time, there were new categories: best documentary on the arts, most entertaining documentary and international documentary. Sitting as a judge on arts programmes was a sustained pleasure, marred by the fact that the winner - David Hockney's Secret Knowledge - had been an Omnibus production and the series is now defunct.

Omnibus has had a rough ride from the BBC recently, buffeted between BBC1 and BBC2, without a regular time-slot where would-be viewers would know where to find it. This scheduling ensures falling audience figures - which can then be given as the reason to cancel the programme. A programme, however good, needs the nurturing care of good and regular time-slots to build a loyal following. It's the schedulers, not the programme-makers, who have dumbed down. Only three out of the 28 that got into the Grierson final shortlists were seen on BBC1. Not one of the winners was seen on BBC1, and three were from BBC4, the digital channel that costs you around £100 to see. So not many of those who watch lots of television - those on low incomes, on family support or unemployment benefit - will get the chance to see the best that's being made. And isn't that the point of public service?

There's plenty to get out and see at the moment. The London Film Festival is in full swing, and one of the few delights of November is huddling under umbrellas through the rain into the warm embrace of cinema foyers where film enthusiasts gather. This year, there are more high-profile documentaries being shown than usual. Both showings of Michael Moore's strong polemic about American gun culture, Bowling for Columbine, got standing ovations. City of God, about crime in Rio de Janiero, is still to come. There's nothing better than a shared passion, and those who love film have a strange passport into each other's hearts. Don't think videos have anything to do with it. It's about big screens, dimmed lights, hushed expectations and the one attribute I hate - the steady munch of popcorn. Though, thankfully, not yet at the National Film Theatre.

This year's festival opened with Stephen Frears's wonderful new film Dirty Pretty Things - a thriller that explores the underclass of asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants trying to hold their lives together while being hounded, exploited and abused. Afterwards, heading for the glitter of the first-night party in Soho, I was suddenly aware of the road sweepers, taxi drivers, fast-food staff and hotel waiters working around the cinema. Frears is a Dickens of the cinema, calling attention to things we aren't eager to know.

This is my last festival as chair of the British Film Institute, whose enterprise it is. It is a wonderful organisation of talented and dedicated people. In my three years, I have seen and learnt much. I have met and celebrated many. I shall miss it all enormously and am readying myself for severe withdrawal symptoms. Whoever succeeds me arrives when exciting plans for the new film centre somewhere along the south bank of the Thames are moving forward. But who will the new chair be? A speedy appointment will allay some wild rumours.

Before the Great Britons series was a glint in Jane Root's eye, I had taken it upon myself to tell my grandchildren stories from this country's history. We had already gazed with awe at Nelson's admiral's uniform on display at the Maritime Museum: the hole made by the sniper's bullet brought the whole episode, depicted in Turner's great painting of the Battle of Trafalgar hanging alongside, vividly to life. Time, I thought, to go and see Nelson's tomb, the great monument raised by a grateful nation to its hero. Just the one tomb we wanted to see, in St Paul's Cathedral. Alas, St Paul's now charges for entry like any tourist venue, and even with granny and grandson reductions it would have cost us around £6. Just one tomb, I pleaded. But no, you buy the tourist packet or nothing. "What if I just wanted to pray?" I asked. That got an even icier response. I flounced out in some anger, and headed instead across the Millennium Bridge, where that other cathedral stands tall and proud: Tate Modern. That, of course, has free entry for all.

Meanwhile, in Brick Lane, the "Body Worlds" exhibition has been extended to meet popular demand. Dead bodies on display, their insides exposed and brilliantly treated with preservative, muscles splayed back to display all the organs. Not gruesome at all. People shuffle through, peering over the glass cases of specimens, impressed and quietly thoughtful.

I am there to chair a debate for BBC4 about Robert Winston's latest series, Human Instinct. The debate is part of the BBC's interactive involvement with the public, and I am there to elicit answers from experts to e-mails from viewers. What's interesting is the number that ask about the human spirit, even the soul. Is religion, too, a human instinct, they want to know? Not surprisingly, there are no easy answers.

This article first appeared in the 18 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, NS Interview - Jack Straw