In 1993, Brandon Lee enrolled as a student in Bearsden Academy, a secondary school within an affluent Glasgow suburb. He was, to all intents and purposes, a bright young pupil with straight As and a starring role in the school musical. There was just one problem. Lee had already graduated 13 years ago from that same school.
My Old School, available now on BBC iPlayer, tells the story of how 32-year-old Brian MacKinnon convinced his teachers and peers that he was a 17-year-old teen – and how his world came crashing down when the truth was discovered. The documentary, which debuted at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is directed by Jono McLeod; one of MacKinnon’s schoolmates from when he posed as Lee. It also stars Alan Cumming. MacKinnon agreed to be interviewed for the documentary but did not want to appear on camera; Cumming lip-syncs his speech. My Old School tells a tale of shocking deception, and yet it is one that ends without any ramifications for MacKinnon. Technically, he did not break any laws, nor do any harm to his fellow students.
“If you really want to prevail, do the unimaginable,” MacKinnon, now 59, advises in the documentary. “Do something that is just so out there that no one is even going to dream you would think of doing that.” MacKinnon achieved the unimaginable in 1993 when he called Bearsden Academy posing as his father, for whom he had fabricated a professorship in Zoology. Despite failing to provide a birth certificate as is the typical requirement, he was admitted to the school after providing two references. One of those shared the name of Mick Jagger’s ex-girlfriend.
Reality told a different story. Mackinnon’s father was, in fact, a lollipop man who had died months earlier. Mackinnon was born into a working-class family in one of Glasgow’s post-war housing projects. His mother wanted more for her son and managed to secure them a move to affluent Bearsden through her job at a local care home. MacKinnon, himself, dreamed of becoming a doctor. After graduating from Bearsden Academy for the first time in 1980, he studied Medicine at Glasgow University. When he fell ill in his first year, he failed his exams and was forced to drop out. “I felt as if I had been robbed and cheated out of my place at university,” he told The Herald in 1995. It took his father dying years later, to jolt him back into action but by then, he was too old to enrol in Medicine again. If Mackinnon wanted to be a doctor, he would have to go back to school another way.
MacKinnon invented an entirely new background for himself at Bearsden. He claimed to be Canadian and faked an accent. He told his peers that his mother had been a world-touring opera singer before she died in a car crash. The truth was that he was still living with his mother but referred to her as his “grandmother”, a lie that she went along with. Mackinnon even got a perm for his disguise. “I was aware of the fact that at any moment a question could arise that I couldn’t answer... but I wasn’t,” he told the BBC in 1995. “I simply kept my head down, looked shy and boyish and that’s all I could do – and it presented no problems at all.” Arguably, the documentary’s most shocking revelation is real-life footage of MacKinnon in the school’s production of South Pacific, in which he sang “Younger Than Springtime” and kissed the 16-year-old girl playing his love interest.
MacKinnon graduated from Bearsden and earned a place studying Medicine at Dundee University in 1994. Just as it looked as though he had gotten away with it, the ruse came undone in his first year. How his lies were discovered remains unclear, though, a popular theory suggests that the truth was leaked by a female student from Bearsden with whom he once went on holiday to Tenerife. While on the trip, his companion discovered MacKinnon’s second passport containing his real name and date of birth. In late 1995, BBC Scotland broke the news of his deception, igniting a media storm that resulted in him losing his place at Dundee. After the initial frenzy, MacKinnon sat down for a number of interviews to explain his actions. “Although I have experienced guilt pangs over the action that I felt compelled to take – the old rationale of the ends justifying the means does not hold water – I am nevertheless not entirely ashamed that I had the gumption to try and overcome a gross injustice by standing on my own two feet and not merely capitulating on my knees,” he told The Herald in 1995.
MacKinnon now lives a reclusive life, no longer in Bearsden but nearby. My Old School ends on an intentionally ambiguous and tantalising note, with MacKinnon reasserting his ambitions to become a doctor. The audience are reminded that he specifically denied showing his face in the documentary that they are currently watching. Through Cumming, he tells us he still has some “tricks” up his sleeve. In spite of everything, MacKinnon, it seems, has clearly not ruled out the “unimaginable”.