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Chains of Consequences: How Princess Diana’s Great-Great-Grandfather Created Grand Theft Auto

By Tom Anderson

The eyes of the world were turned to Paris on August 31st, 1997, when Diana, Princess of Wales died from injuries sustained in a high-speed car crash in a road tunnel in the French capital. Behaviour of pursuing paparazzi was initially blamed, through a French investigation later placed sole blame on the drugs and intoxication of her driver (who also died). The third death of the crash was Dodi Fayed, Diana’s then partner following her divorce of Prince Charles, and son of Harrod’s owner Mohamed Al Fayed. The latter spent many years generating conspiracy theories that the couple had been slain on the Royal Family’s orders, although aside from him—despite the intense global attention on Charles’ and Diana’s failing marriage followed by her funeral—this has never proved as popular a topic for such nonsensical witterings as the JFK assassination or 9/11.

The circumstances of Diana’s tragic death might, to some readers, evoke the setting of the popular but controversial videogame series “Grand Theft Auto”: the high speed car chase, the tunnel, the crash, the involvement of drugs and intoxication. Perhaps a bad taste comparison, given the worst a GTA player would face in that situation is impatiently waiting a few seconds to respawn after seeing the blood-tinged word ‘WASTED’; yet, strangely enough, there is a connection. Time for another chain of historical consequences!

Although she became popular with many working-class people, Diana was of decidedly aristocratic stock. Her family, the Spencers, first rose to prominence in the fifteenth century—though for a time they falsely claimed to be descended from the older Norman Despencer family. Sir John Spencer (ca. 1455-1522) bought the stately home of Althorp in Northamptonshire, which has since been permanently in the hands of the family and a remarkable 19 generations of Spencers have lived there; Diana is now interred on a small island in the grounds. The Churchill family also descends from the Spencers (indeed, Winston Churchill was properly Winston Spencer-Churchill) and countless Spencers have served in British politics and the military over the past five centuries.

John Spencer in 1888 as painted by John Charlton

Our particular interest here is in Diana’s great-great-grandfather, John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910). He was known as ‘the Red Earl’ for his long red beard, red hair being a Spencer family trait whose best-known modern inheritor is Prince Harry (himself embroiled in controversy at time of writing). The name Red Earl certainly did not refer to his politics; John was a member of the Liberal Party, but of the traditionalist Whiggish faction as opposed to more modern and radical thinkers such as Joseph Chamberlain. However, he did support Lord John Russell’s 1866 reform bill, which led to later Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone rewarding him with ministerial office. John spent much of that career as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, where he won some plaudits for presiding over the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and other reforms, but also antagonised Irish Nationalists by his handling of the Maamtrasna murders—in which an innocent Irish monoglot was put to death as a scapegoat after an English-language trial he could not understand.

In addition to the ancestral home of Althorp, John owned Wimbledon House (which had gone through many hands and incarnations down the centuries) which gave him authority over the Manor of Wimbledon and specifically Wimbledon Common. In 1864 he put forward a Parliamentary private bill that would allow him to enclose this land, build a new park and sell off parts to developers. To understand this context, we must briefly recall what common land and enclosure are. Traditionally in England under the feudal system, common land was land held ‘in common’, ultimately possessed by a feudal overlord (the Crown or a nobleman) but given over to ordinary people as tenants to farm it. This is, in fact, where the term ‘commoner’ originates. Mediaeval peasants had possessed certain rights to farm and use common land, many of which have peculiar Norman French names—something parodied by Terry Pratchett in Wyrd Sisters:

“It’s gone too far this time,” said a peasant. “All this burning and taxing and now this. I blame you witches. It’s got to stop. I know my rights.”

“What rights are they?” said Granny.

“Dunnage, cowhage-in-ordinary, badinage, leftovers, scrommidge, clary, and spunt,” said the peasant promptly. “And acornage, every other year, and the right to keep two-thirds of a goat on the common. Until he [the new ruling Duke] set fire to it. It was a bloody good goat, too.”

As with many of Pratchett’s parodies, the comedic exaggeration reflects a deeper truth. The eighteenth century saw the Agricultural Revolution, with such common land—historically often divided into thin farming strips or plots of land farmed by individual peasants—‘enclosed’ into combined fields under the sole ownership of a single farmer. This created the familiar look of the English countryside today, with patchwork fields separated by hedges. Though this dramatically increased crop yields due in part to the centrally organised farming, it took away historical privileges of the common people and resulted in protests. The process was still ongoing in the mid-nineteenth century, and towns were in danger of losing the common land which had been used for public events and recreation as well as for farming.

In an important precedent, John Spencer’s attempt to obtain Wimbledon Common failed following an inquiry. In 1871 a board of conservators was appointed and the land was officially protected from future development. It exists to this day as public land, and this was a landmark decision to ensure the protection of other commons elsewhere in the country—though, as an ongoing struggle with Wandsworth Council over access rights to Putney Common shows, this has never ceased to be a political issue. ‘The common’ remains a feature of English rural and suburban life, with other famous examples including Horsell Common near Woking in Surrey, where H.G. Wells’ fictional Martians first land in The War of the Worlds (1897).

Spencer’s failure to sell off Wimbledon Common, already a historically important site dating back to Bronze Age ruins, had a number of important impacts on history. Most obvious is the fact that some of this land came to play host to the world’s most famous tennis championship—though ironically the land was originally developed for croquet playing, at the time of the peak of that sport’s popularity in the late 19th century. Wimbledon Common was also the place where Robert Baden-Powell wrote Scouting for Boys, starting off the international scouting movement and its imitators. But today we will be looking at a slightly more obscure derivation, which came about almost exactly a century after the Red Earl’s legal misfire.

Elisabeth Beresford (1926-2010) was a writer and journalist, who enjoyed only modest success until her breakthrough hit in 1968. Beresford took her children out to Wimbledon Common for a stroll on Boxing Day, and her daughter Kate made an entertaining childish mispronunciation: “Ma, isn’t it great on Wombledon Common?” The misnomer inspired Beresford to create the Wombles of Wimbledon Common, a group of strange, underground-dwelling, pointy-nosed furry creatures who collect litter and recycle it. The characters of the Wombles were largely inspired by Beresford’s family members, but their names are all the names of places around the world: Great Uncle Bulgaria, Orinoco, Wellington, Tomsk, Madame Cholet (a village in France) and so on—supposedly because they were named after places found on an old map. The Wombles began as a series of books, but shot to wider prominence when they received an iconic stop-motion children’s TV show in the 1970s. Their environmentalist pro-recycling message was considerably ahead of its time, and inspired children of the time to start their own recycling groups. The Wombles even gave birth to a band (in-character in furry suits resembling the originals) under the leadership of Mike Batt, who wrote the TV show’s them tune. Far more than a novelty act, they were remarkably successful, with four gold albums and four top ten singles; in fact in chart terms they were the most successful UK act of 1974! The Wombles even performed as the interval act of the Eurovision Song Contest of that year, historically important as Portugal’s song was used as a signal to trigger the Carnation Revolution back home (as well as the contest being won by Abba’s timeless “Waterloo”).

The Wombles have had a huge cultural impact on Britain, particularly for people of a certain age, and entire articles could be devoted to this. However, today we’re just going to look at one specific example.

In the 1980s, Britain’s 8-bit computer game industry frequently blurred the line between hobbyists and professional developers. Whereas in America games were frequently released on expensive floppy disks or RAM cartridges, Britons had less disposable income and preferred cassette tapes: long and tedious to load, unreliable—but cheap. They were also easy to copy, pirate and share, making it difficult for companies to make money—but this also meant that amateur developers could share their ideas relatively easily.

In 1984, four such young computer fans in Dundee were David Jones, Russell Kay, Steve Hammond and Mike Dailly, who met at the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club. Coming from different computer platform specialisations, they developed a number of early games, and then Jones founded the company DMA Design (after learning that ‘Acme’ was already taken!) Dailly was the company’s first employee. DMA Design was responsible for a number of early modest successes such as the side-scrolling shooter ‘Menace’, which (reflecting the company’s expertise with different platforms) was released for the Commodore Amiga in 1988 but then ported to the Atari ST, Commodore 64 and MS-DOS for IBM PC compatibles.

The company’s big breakthrough hit came in 1991. Dailly had been working on the Amiga game ‘Walker’ and got into an argument with Scott Johnson about how many pixels were required to represent the enemies which the titular Walker would shoot at. Johnson planned to use a 16 by 16 pixel box, but Dailly claimed the sprite could be done in just 8 by 8—which, in those days of extremely limited screen memory and runtime, could open up a lot more possibilities for the game. To prove it, with Gary Timmons’ help he used the Amiga programme Deluxe Paint to make a simple animation of small minimalist figures marching back and forth and ending in comedically messy fates, such as being eaten by a toothy mouth or crushed by a cartoon 10 ton weight. Russell Kay liked the animation so much that he commented “There’s a game in that!” Jones decided to take the concept forward, and the designers created a puzzle game in which the player must command an army of the little figures with abilities such as mining, building bridges and self-destructing, with the goal of escaping from different level designs. Due to the limited colour palettes of the computers involved (and, as always, mindful of the need to port the game to other systems), the designers decided to give the figures striking green hair. It was Kay who dubbed them ‘Lemmings’, after the urban myth that those creatures suicidally fling themselves off cliffs—the in-game Lemmings would similarly meet with disaster unless watched and directed carefully.

Of course, the figures on the screen were deliberately so small as to be barely distinct—that had been the whole point, after all—which allowed a remarkable number of them to be displayed on screen given the hardware limitations at the time. The publisher, Psygnosis, kept asking DMA Design what the Lemmings ‘really’ looked like so they could design box art, and Timmons drew up some official art—taking obvious inspiration from, you guessed it, the Wombles. Essentially, Lemmings just resemble furless Wombles with green hair. Presumably their habit of underground burrowing may have suggested the comparison. The design worked well, and the box art drew in the punters as planned.

“Lemmings” was a smash-hit success, selling 15 million copies and (typically) being ported to an absurd number of platforms: Amiga, MS-DOS, Mac, Acorn Archimedes, MSDOS, Sega Mega Drive, SNES, Philips CD-i… It also spawned a number of sequels and remakes. Ironically, one of the later ones was published by Team 17, a studio which had previously quietly come up with a ‘Lemmings with guns’ game concept and then craftily changed them to worms – and “Worms” was born.

The success of “Lemmings” put DMA Design on the map. Though many of its games ended up stuck in development hell or cancelled, there was a running theme throughout its products, which Jones characterised as a dislike of linear and predictable gameplay. That might manifest itself in the open-ended puzzle-solving of “Lemmings”, but in 1997 it would instead take the form of pioneering open-world action games. As early as 1995, DMA Design was working on a game called “Race’n’Chase”, initially for the Amiga, then later for other platforms when that one died off. Initially conceived as a largely conventional (if violent and crash-emphasising) racing game, reportedly it metamorphosed into a crime thriller plot when early testers loved an A.I. glitch that made police cars ram the player off the road. “Race’n’Chase” metamorphosed into the totally different game “Grand Theft Auto”, spawning a franchise which has become one of the world’s biggest gaming phenomena and which has sold over 280 million copies worldwide of all its games together.

The later GTA games have been critically praised for their storytelling, yet are also frequently the target of moral crusades due to their adult and hyperviolent content. Both fans and critics often miss the point that the games are intended to be exaggerated and satirical, in many ways a British view on America looking in, seeing US cities through the lens of action movies and cop dramas that make them seem like a continuous crime-ridden war-zone. (Indeed, many American fans do not realise the games are British-made, although the fact that some spinoffs were set in London might be a bit of a clue). The designers have shown remarkable skill in coming up with copyright-friendly product and place names that evoke the real thing whilst also carrying undertones of seedy degradation. For example, the logo for a Chinese bank called “Whan-Q Bank” evokes that of the real-life HSBC, while being a pun on the British slang phrase “wank bank” for sperm donor clinic (likely missed by many non-British fans), and the name combined with the Chinese character in its logo sounds like the actual Cantonese word for ‘fortune’. This is typical of the games’ combination of cleverly subtle language and knowingly immature humour.

DMA Design no longer exists under that name, having passed through many hands and being known as Rockstar North, a division of Rockstar Games, since the early 21st century. Its most recent GTA game is Grand Theft Auto V in 2013, leaving many fans impatient for another; it has also been critically acclaimed more recently for Red Dead Redemption II, which transposes similar gameplay and storytelling into the American Old West. It is one of the most successful British games developers and has been described as making a not inconsequential contribution to Scotland’s economy—not bad for a company that started out as four guys in a computer club in Dundee.

And all of this can, ultimately, be traced back to one Victorian aristocrat who wanted to sell off public land.



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