Why BBC Radio 4’s The Punch made me cry all day

In 2011 an 18-year-old called Jacob Dunne drunkenly killed another young man during a scuffle and went to prison. Years later, the dead boy’s parents meet Jacob.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In 2011 an 18-year-old called Jacob Dunne drunkenly killed another young man during a scuffle – “a simple punch to the face” – and went to prison. Years later, the dead boy’s gentle, still-stunned parents, Joan and David, met Jacob to discover who he really is. Remarkable that such encounters happen at all. But the results of that conversation – as described in this five-episode series (from 20 July, 1:45pm) – made me cry all day.

Jacob emerged in his early twenties from the stuttering, incompetent machine that is a British young offenders’ unit, and agreed to be in touch with Joan and David – first by email and then in person. Over the following years, he became the recipient of their (stunning, frankly) goodness and support; going on to do well at university and marry a nice-sounding woman. Relief. All shall be well. But what tips this series into another category of touching is – because of Covid-era recording restrictions – it had to be made by Jacob himself, mostly speaking to people over the phone from his car; the only place he could escape the screams of his newborn baby. His car is his cell, his consciousness, his studio.

The whole marvellous thing reminded me of the movie Locke, with Tom Hardy driving down the motorway enacting the soulful drama alone via phone conversations. Same effect here. The unbelievable intimacy of a missed breath. The incredible baldness of certain phrases, such as Joan admitting, “If I’d have got hold of you in those early days I’d have tried to kill you.” And David not being able to enunciate the words, “I forgive you.”

Yet – still – he is endlessly kind to Jacob. You feel the beautiful stark pallor of words like forgiveness, and love. Jacob’s self-doubt is powerful too, and I wonder if he’d have revealed quite so much had his thoughts been recorded more conventionally. I’m sure I could hear the blood pulsing anxiously in his temples. Does he deserve this newfound reliability and sanity? This new, well-lived, peaceable life? Surely it belongs to someone else. He seems to have the tormenting suspicion that in some way, his happiness is embezzled. But we all suspect that, on some level. Don’t we?

The Punch 
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

Free trial CSS