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My Old School: Story of schoolboy imposter who was exposed in Dundee to screen at Sundance

Alan Cummings as Brandon Lee in Jono McLeod's documentary, My Old School.

He was the Walter Mitty character who dreamed of being a doctor and became Scotland’s oldest and most notorious school pupil.

Brian MacKinnon nearly got away with it, before his double life was exposed after being accepted to study medicine at Dundee University.

MacKinnon had first left Bearsden Academy in 1980 to begin a medical course at Glasgow University but he was forced to leave in 1983 when he twice failed his exams.

MacKinnon, then 30, assumed a new identity in 1993 as 17-year-old Brandon Lee, going back to re-sit his Highers at his old Glasgow school.

Daring or daft, MacKinnon, now 58, decided to plump for the name of the recently deceased son of the martial arts expert and world-famous movie star Bruce Lee, and then adopted a Canadian accent to avoid being spotted by his former teachers.

Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee.

This ruse backfired when a teacher decided the accent would be perfect for the role of Joe Cable in the school’s production of the musical South Pacific and forced him, to his horror, into centre stage, with no one suspecting he was actually a grown man.

He achieved five A-grade Highers and the Bearsden Academy headteacher gave him a glowing report and recommended him for a place in medical school.

MacKinnon was accepted at Dundee University but ran out of luck after a neighbour leaked news of his secret identity in September 1995.

The story went global and MacKinnon became the media’s most wanted man.

The news brought his brief fresh start in Dundee to an end.

The thing you have to do if you really want to prevail is do the unimaginable.”

Alan Cumming as Brandon Lee

He told BBC Scotland following his expulsion that he had simply wanted to go back to medicine and get a degree before deciding on his future.

“Even after that, I would not have wanted to have gone on to a career that necessarily had direct hands-on involvement with patients, unless I had by that stage come clean,” he said.

“I wanted to give myself the peace of mind that I knew what was necessary for what I wanted to do in life, and I had satisfied the authorities.

“Then, if I was to come clean, as I intended to do, they could have said to me: ‘Well, I’m afraid you are not going to be a regular doctor but perhaps you may be able to apply your talents.'”

Brian MacKinnon posing as 17-year-old school pupil Brandon Lee.
Brian MacKinnon posing as 17-year-old school pupil Brandon Lee.

MacKinnon recalled his first day at Bearsden under his bogus identity and encountering a teacher from his previous time at the school.

“I simply kept my head down, looked shy and boyish,” he said.

He recalled overhearing a pupil tell a friend that Brandon Lee had a “face about 40” and commented: “I felt quite insulted. I was only 30 at the time.”

MacKinnon turned his back on a potential six-figure book deal and published his autobiography online in 1997.

He talked at length about his family history and of how his father’s death from undiagnosed cancer made him resolve to enter medicine.

He described the feelings of dread “Brandon” experienced as he walked through the gates of his old school and his terror of being discovered as pupils joked about his age.

MacKinnon likened himself to a sea trout, “that wiliest of fish,” set upon by the “sea lice” of the media who laid siege to his mother’s Bearsden home.

Sundance documentary

The extraordinary story of how he fooled classmates and teachers for two years is about to be told on the big screen for the first time in a documentary.

My Old School features animation, an audio interview with MacKinnon, mimed by actor Alan Cumming, and interviews with old classmates and teachers.

Cumming, who was born in Aberfeldy, called the story a “great Scottish tale that gripped the entire nation when it first broke back in the 1990s”.

“This documentary retells it from the point of view of the pupils and teachers it all happened to,” he said.

“Their experience, their truth and the legacy they still struggle with will, I believe, now captivate a global audience.

“It’s told with a quirky sensitivity, humour and honesty.

“It’s a story that has always fascinated me and I am delighted to play a part in its telling.”

Alan Cumming.
Alan Cumming.

The documentary, directed by Jono McLeod, a former classmate of MacKinnon, will be first screened at the Sundance festival in Utah this month.

In a promotional video, McLeod said: “My Old School is all about my old school – that’s Bearsden Academy – the high school in a fairly well-to-do suburb of Glasgow, Scotland. The film combines live action interviews with my former classmates and two teachers alongside animated re-enactments.

“In 1993 when we were 16 years old, my classmates and I welcomed a new kid.

“His name was Brandon, he came from Canada.

“And when he arrived he was a bit of a geek. But over the course of two years, he managed to climb the social ladder of high school life and become pretty popular.

“That was until the secret to his success was revealed.

“When he was unmasked.”

The late actor Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee.
The late actor Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee.

McLeod explained that MacKinnon agreed to an interview, but would not be filmed.

He said: “My old classmate Brandon wanted to tell his story, and granted me an interview. But for his own reasons, just didn’t want to be seen on camera.”

Instead, Cumming is seen as MacKinnon, saying: “The thing you have to do if you really want to prevail is do the unimaginable.”

The title track – a cover of Steely Dan’s My Old School – is sung by Lulu, who also appears in the film.

McLeod said: “My Old School is a film about ambition, deceit, friendship and the many barriers that make up the British class system.

“It’s a story that I think is as unique as it is universal.”

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