My Old School: Jono McLeod on bringing the story of his infamous imposter classmate to the big screen

Jono McLeod has more reason than most to feel a mix of excitement and trepidation ahead of his high school reunion.

Sunday, 27th February 2022, 4:55 am
Updated Sunday, 27th February 2022, 10:46 am
Jono McLeod's documenatary My Old School will get its European premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on 3 March.
Jono McLeod's documenatary My Old School will get its European premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on 3 March.

When the Scottish director unveils his feature-length debut at the Glasgow Film Festival this week, it will be the culmination of five years of work to bring the most infamous episode in the history of Bearsden Academy to the big screen.

Nearly 30 years after it emerged that a 30-year-old former pupil had managed to re-enroll as a 16-year-old, by adopting a Canadian accent and a false identity, his old classmates and teachers will finally get their say on the scandal which engulfed the school when his deception was exposed after he had left for a second time.

They effectively make up the cast of McLeod’s documentary, alongside “Brandon Lee”, the alter ego created by Brian Mackinnon as part of his audacious efforts to pursue a career in medicine.

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Brandon Lee alias of Brian MacKinnon re-enrolled at Bearsden Academy when he was 30. Picture: Allan Milligan

McLeod, who was in the same registration class as Lee, has joined forces with actor Alan Cumming, who was linked with a feature film on the scandal as far back as the late 1990s, to bring the story to the big screen.

The Broadway and Hollywood star voices a new interview which McLeod’s old classmate granted him on strict condition he did not appear on screen, while Clare Grogan, Dawn Steele, Carly McKinnon, Gary Lamont and singer Lulu are among the actors providing the voices of animated versions of the 1990s staff and pupils.

Speaking ahead of the European premiere on Thursday, McLeod said the starting point for the documentary was recording a five and half hour interview with his old classmate.

He said: “That first interview really started the process of reaching out to all the teachers and the other kids and through that I found out more staff that he hadn’t made me aware of.

Scottish filmmaker Jono McLeod has directed My Old School, which will get its European premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on 3 March. Picture: Suzanne R Livingstone

"I wanted to get a broad picture of what really happened back then, as I think we all had a muddied idea. The film is as close as I could get to a version of the truth by getting 30-plus people together to try to figure out what the hell happened.

“I wasn’t a friend of Brandon’s at school - I was hardly anyone’s friend. Myself and Nicola (Walker), one of the key interviewees in the film, lived in Clydebank and were bussed in every day to Bearsden, which is as much of a character in the film as anyone. In a way, it stood me in good stead as a kind of impartial observer.

"The day Brandon walked into our registration class for the first time is my abiding memory of him, but I wasn’t as brainy as him so I wasn’t really in his other classes.

“The big surprise for everyone was the level of press interest at the time. What had struck all of us as odd was that he did look 30. 'Thirtysomething' was actually one of his nicknames at school. I’m not sure I massively buy the whole thing about him having a youthful appearance.

Jono McLeod's documenatary My Old School will get its European premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on 3 March.

“But there was a tragic back-story, involving facial burns, plastic surgery and an accident where he had lost his mother. We were also just following orders – the teachers told us he was a 16-year-old Canadian and we just went with it.

“I think a big part of it with him coming from Canada was the fact that we were used to watching movies like Grease and shows like 90210, where the cast were a lot older than their characters.

"A lot of the kids I spoke to told me how difficult it was to have a conversation with him because of his vocabulary and the stuff he was into.

"But the teachers absolutely. He had designed himself as the perfect Bearsden Academy pupil.”

McLeod’s film was selected for Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in January, only for in-person events to be dropped due to rising Covid cases.

He added: “The film is layered with twists and turns that I’ve been trying to protect as much as possible.

"The weird thing for me is that, because the Sundance screening didn’t happen, the first physical screening that I’ll be at is with a Scottish audience, who will know the Brandon story to some extent, but they won’t know some of the stuff that we get to.

“It doesn’t really exist online and there’s a bit of cut-off age for people who don’t know the story – there will definitely be kids at Bearsden Academy who won’t know anything about it.”

McLeod suggests the majority of the former pupils interviewed have a lingering admiration for the prolonged deception and admits the film is likely to be a more sympathetic portrayal of his former classmate than if another director had taken on the story.

He said: “If people do feel that I’ve not gone in hard enough on him then I totally take that criticism on board. I get that different people have different perspectives on it.

"But for the most part, taking a straw poll of my classmates, there is a certain fondness for him and an understanding that, however crazy it seems to us, when he tells you his version of events this is a weird logical sense to it. People do kind of get what he was trying to do.

"It was funny as a kid because the teachers all fell for it. If your teachers have been shown up as total mugs it’s brilliant. There are some people to whom Brandon is almost a folk hero.

“I think today’s school kids would probably believe something like this couldn’t happen now and they’d be right. I think with social media today he would be clocked straight away.

"And the one thing we will never know is what would have happened had Brandon rocked up to Clydebank High rather than Bearsden Academy.”