Medicine and mind control: the extraordinary true story of Brandon Lee
It was a performance that Bearsden Academy was never going to forget.
Brandon Lee was starring as Lieutenant Cable in the music department’s take on Rogers and Hammerstein classic musical South Pacific, and his rousing performance of Younger Than Springtime saw parents and students alike cheering him on.
At the end of the showtune, he held his Liat (played by a student called Val) and gave her a passionate kiss on the lips.
After the curtain closed and the thunderous applause of parents had petered out, Bearsden Academy headmaster, Mr McLeod, singled Brandon out especially for his performance.
‘He behaves and acts like he’s been a pupil of this academy from the very beginning,’ Mr. McLeod said. ‘And we’re delighted to have him.’
But Mr McLeod’s remark, innocently made, was eerily on the mark.
Brandon had been to Bearsden Academy before – nearly 13 years prior in 1980, under his real name Brian MacKinnon. He had snuck back into secondary education under a new alias in order to try and make his way back into university.
Now, this stranger than fiction tale of one man’s desperate desire to become a doctor has been brought to life by director Jono McLeod in My Old School, a documentary looking at how Brian duped his old schoolteachers, and his new friends, as he became a teenager once again when he returned to sixth form.
In the film, Brian did not want his face to be featured, so his testimony is lip-synced by award-winning Scottish actor, Alan Cumming.
Jono was a student at the same time as Brian pulled off his hoax – and while some have perceived his actions as creepy or sordid, Jono was keen, as someone who was witness to it, to show the reality in his film.
‘I wanted this to feel like a warm teen movie like Never Been Kissed,’ Jono explains to Metro.co.uk. ‘I know people might be coming to this film expecting to see the Tinder Swindler or The Imposter or a dark true crime film. This is a warm, funny, sad high school movie. There’s a joy to it.
‘I’m not saying what Brian did was right, but it was amazing. It’s something that united all of us.’
But Brian’s plan very nearly didn’t work. He admits in the documentary that he almost ‘started crying’ while walking through the large, looming gates of Bearsden Academy under his new alias. He knew it was a huge risk, particularly as some of the teachers had taught him in their lessons in his original run at the school.
In a bid to adopt the fresh-faced and artless look of a teenager, Brian lost three stone in weight, giving him a tall, rakish appearance. He had plucked his previously full and bushy eyebrows into thin ones, and spent every night putting his hair in rollers so it was luscious and curly the next morning – a routine he continued until he started getting a perm.
‘When you have an adversary, the thing you have to do, if you really want to prevail, is do the unimaginable,’ Brian explains when asked why he chose to mimic a teenager. ‘You have to do something so out there that no one would ever dream you could do that.’
When he first rocked up to the Modern Languages classroom full of other 16-year-olds, it was clear that this pupil was different. Dressed in full school regalia, and carrying a small satchel-like briefcase with him, classmates were immediately intrigued by the newbie, who went by the name ‘Brandon’.
‘He looked significantly older,’ recalls one in the documentary. ‘He looked about 40. Even his skin was different.’
However, despite the difference in demeanour and appearance, many students (and teachers), believed Brian simply on face value.
It was Brandon’s backstory that many felt explained his older look and manner. His mother had been a famous opera singer in Canada, and the two travelled the world as she attended concerts. After she was suddenly killed in a tragic car accident, Brandon was forced to live with his grandmother in her council house in Bearsden, a well-to-do suburb just outside of Glasgow.
Speaking with a soft voice that carried a Canadian twang, coupled with a harsher Scottish brogue, many people just believed Brandon’s lifestyle could have contributed to why he felt so much more mature than the rest of the kids in Junior year.
That’s not to say that Brandon’s entry into Bearsden Academy was easy, with some of the younger students deciding to pick on the decidedly weird newcomer to the senior school.
As Brandon paced the grey tarmac slab that was Bearsden’s playground, he was on the receiving end on some name-calling, becoming known amongst the younger students as ‘Thirty-something’ – ironic, seeing as he was 31 at the time.
‘It was like going behind enemy lines at break time,’ Brian says, reflecting on the experience. ‘But I just didn’t really notice the kids I went to school with. I just wanted to get to be where I wanted to be.’
Brandon’s unpopularity was short-lived, as he unexpectedly started to bond with some of the students in his year. He struck up a friendship with the quiet and meek Stefen Haddon, who had been victim to a string of racist bullying. The pair, who sat next to each other in Chemistry, bonded over Brandon’s quick wit and expert Clint Eastwood impression.
‘Our friendship meant a lot to me,’ Stefen tells the filmmakers. ‘I didn’t really have that kind of social interaction with a lot of people at school.’
Brandon also became fast friend with music lover Brian in his class. While Brian was being teased for being a fan of techno tunes, Brandon introduced him to the indie and rock sounds of the eighties: Television, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Joy Division, to name a few.
‘He fundamentally informed my music taste,’ Brian recalls. ‘I felt as if my whole identity changed.’
Brandon had started to climb the slippery social ladder of school, establishing himself as the class brainbox. He was the first to stick his hand up in class with the right answer, as well as brimming with tough and complicated questions that often left his teachers baffled.
But such curiosity, upon reflection, was quite telling on Brandon’s part – almost as if he was teasing those around him in an effort to be discovered.
In one science lesson, he asked his teacher to define time and time travel. In another, he leaned into the critical readings of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, talking about salesman Willy Loman’s delusions of his thirty-something son still being in high school.
It was his commitment in English that earmarked Brandon for the lead in the school play, South Pacific.
I just thought, ‘To hell with those guys that tried to stop me.’ I was going to make it work.
‘They loved me, and I got the part,’ Brian laughs as he remembers. ‘I just remember thinking… oh dear.’
It was this role that saw Brandon as a recognisable figure in Bearsden Academy, with his stocks soaring. He was no longer the lonely person on the playground, being picked on by kids. He was popular.
Brandon’s ability to drive also made him a firm favourite amongst his peers. After being spotted cruising around town in his car, he quickly explained his precocious behaviour on his background – saying he got his driving licence aged 16 in Canada. It was particularly useful to his classmates, seeing as most hadn’t even started driving lessons yet.
He even held house parties for his new pals, with kids from across Bearsden Academy piling down to Brandon’s grandmother’s house for a knees-up. Brandon impressed his classmates with his intricate knowledge on how to make cocktails – a particularly grown-up hobby for a bunch of 16-year-olds.
When exams came around, Brandon achieved what everyone expected him: five A grades, which secured his place at Dundee University to study Medicine – his dream had come true.
‘Medicine… it’s like the tide for me,’ Brian says in the film. ‘There is nothing else I want to do.’
However, his time there was short-lived, with Brandon returning home to break the news to friends that his beloved grandmother, who he lived with, had died.
To cheer him up, three girls in his class arranged for Brandon to go on holiday with them to Tenerife – an invite he begrudgingly accepted.
If it hadn’t had been on that holiday, Brian/Brandon may have been able to go on and study medicine, become a doctor, and no-one would have been any the wiser about his deception.
But after a big blow-up row during the break, one of the girls uncovered Brandon’s true identity. An anonymous phone call reporting the deception to the school soon followed.
The game was up: Brian had been exposed.
His first run at Bearsden, back in 1975, had been truly unremarkable. Brian had moved to the area when he was 12 with his parents. His mother was a care home nurse, instead of an opera singer. His father was a lollipop man.
Being slapped into Glasgow’s upper-crust, particularly when Brian had grown up in the rough area of Milton, saw him choose to lurk in the shadows at Bearsden Academy.
‘I wasn’t one of the pretty kids that anyone wanted to go out with,’ Brian recalls. ‘I was brought up to be impersonable, to hold back from people… I just had a sense that it wasn’t my time for that sort of thing yet.’
With the help of his mother, who he had a very close bond with, Brian made it into the highly prestigious Glasgow University medical school. At first, everything went well. He was getting straight A’s in his coursework and seemed on the path to becoming a doctor.
But Brian claims that he succumbed to a brief but sudden mystery illness, exhibiting flu-like symptoms and night sweats. He failed his first year exams and found himself turfed out.
‘It was like bad cop bad cop,’ Brian says. ‘They told me medicine wasn’t for me and that I should go. ‘It was brutal, and nasty, and bad. It felt like the end of the world.’
Glasgow University has since stood by their decision to expel him, saying due process was followed at the time.
After more failed attempts to try and get into uni, Brian found himself back in Bearsden, working as a janitor in a health club.
It was his father’s dying wish that his son kept working for his dreams to come true, and so Brian decided to put his somewhat bizarre and intricate plan into place.
‘My life had been held back for no good reason,’ Brian says. ‘I just thought, “to hell with those guys that tried to stop me.” I was going to make it work.’
How Brian managed to convince the school to admit him for a second time, without any proof or evidence of his age? Well, the man himself puts it down to his unique and special abilities.
‘I have, what I call, mesmerism,’ he explains. ‘I have skills where I can hypnotise people and get into their psyche. I can do that.’
Jono agrees to some extent that it was mind control.
‘He stood in front of us, clearly a man in his thirties, and convinced us he was a 16 year old boy,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘That will of confidence is a sort of mind control.’
A more believable option was that Brian was aided and abetted by his mother.
Newspaper reports from the time suggest that she was the one that instilled this all-consuming desire within Brian to become a doctor, boasting to friends that he was a medic.
Pals of ‘Brandon’ also claimed she was happy to be referred to as his gran when they visited their house, hinting at her complicity in the plan.
Despite Brandon’s claim that his gran had suddenly died, Brian’s mother was very much alive, and was papped getting flowers from the front door as the media circus camped out outside her house.
However, Brian insists his beloved mother knew nothing of his bizarre behaviour and was not involved at all.
It was no surprise that his high school deception sparked international news interest when the story was leaked and the world’s media soon descended on the otherwise quiet town of Bearsden.
While Brian initially fled the roaming paps, fleeing to another country for a week, he enjoyed a brief stint of celebrity upon his return. It was generally accepted that, while his behaviour was weird and disconcerting, it wasn’t illegal – Brian was simply a figure of curiosity. He appeared on the Late, Late Show to be interviewed, as well as GMTV.
The students of Bearsden Academy also lapped up the press attention.
‘It was certainly an embarrassment for the teachers,’ Jono laughs. ‘But a lot of us had an admiration that he managed to pull it off.’
While nearly 30 years have since passed, with Bearsden’s class of 1993 having grown up and many moved town, Brian is still in Bearsden.
His mother has passed away, and those who still live in the area say he doesn’t really acknowledge them, even if they were close as schoolmates.
Some hold his friendship dear, even now – still referring to him under his assumed name.
‘I’m glad Brandon was who Brandon was,’ Stefan says. ‘He made my life more bearable. If anything would have been different back then, I wouldn’t be who I am today.’
Others are questionable about his decisions and motives, believing Brian became intoxicated with the fun and excitement Brandon’s life offered him.
‘Brian fell down the rabbit hole,’ Jono says. ‘If you figure out the secret of how to ace high school, how to help people and be a nice person and everyone is marvelling at how clever you are, it becomes intoxicating.
‘It’s kind of amazing and sad in a way. It’s like going back to primary school and being clever at reading. Of course you know how to be a great high school kid if you’re allowed to do it again.’
His former classmates still in the Bearsden area sometimes spot Brian walking around, backpack in tow. He’s often seen in the library, where he’s still applying for medical universities, at the age of 59.
But while he may still be searching for the medical degree to justify his wide-reaching intelligence, Jono hopes his film makes Brian see that he is more than just a university place.
‘What I would love for this film for Brandon and Brian to understand, is that there are different ways to be successful of life,’ he says. ‘The greatest success is that he got away with Scotland’s hilarious, great, fun hoax.
‘You can embrace success in other ways. And Brandon has. He has written three memoirs, he has written a sitcom.
‘Life is about different paths we need to take.’
My Old School is released in selected cinemas on Friday 19th August.
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