There was no doubt the old man had an aura about him.
Maybe it was just the sun shining on the Parisian cafe, or his reputation as a forgotten film auteur and kind of underground celebrity.
Either way, Justin Parkinson, who operates bars and restaurants in Manchester, felt overwhelmed sitting in his presence.
Parkinson was a lover of the Spanish resort island Ibiza — so much so that he’d flown from England just to share a meal with this ageing star of old Ibiza, Lord Sydney Ling.
“I didn’t really know what to say. I sat down [at the cafe] and just actually cried,” Parkinson said of meeting Lord Sydney in 2010.
“I had gone off on this crazy mission to meet somebody and it was all connected with Ibiza. And I was actually sat there with this kind of … ethereal legend.”
Parkinson only knew the young, golden-haired version of Ling, as a mysterious Dutch figure photographed in the company of Hollywood and Ibiza royalty.
But sitting opposite Parkinson in a local bar, he looked like a healthy, somewhat ordinary 60-year-old man.
The two ate steaks, then Lord Sydney gave Parkinson a tour of the Bourse financial district, walking so fast it was difficult to keep pace.
It was a brief encounter, but Parkinson got the impression this was a man who spent his life travelling Europe, enjoying wine and telling tall stories in the company of strangers.
He was charismatic, full of long tales about the old glory days.
Afterwards, Parkinson found it impossible to separate what was fact and what was fiction in Ling’s seemingly incredible life story.
“Is he real? Is he not?” he asked Cameron James and Alexei Toliopoulos, two Sydney comedians who were on their own hunt to find Lord Sydney Ling.
Searching for Ling in sunny old Ibiza
The two comedians were familiar with the same blog posts and forums that Parkinson had read.
These blogs were full of charming anecdotes about Ibiza before it was a clubbing paradise for Londoners looking to enjoy cocaine benders in a beachside setting.
The sun-drenched streets and thriving bars of old Ibiza were an enclave for hippies, artists, the black sheep from rich families in Europe, and some of the most famous people of the 20th century, like Orson Welles and Salvador Dali.
According to these blogs, Lord Sydney made his mark in this bohemian atmosphere as a child prodigy from Amsterdam left alone by rich parents to grow up among the artists and the painters.
Orson Welles was said to have been so impressed by the boy’s talent that he encouraged him to become a director.
But the blog posts got even stranger. Those who met that child, now a man, described Lord Sydney as a sort of light-being, or somebody with special powers.
Ling was reputed to walk at superhuman speed. He was over 3,000 years old and could speak to animals. His hands were filled with a special heat that had the power to heal.
James and Toliopoulos had been searching for Lord Sydney Ling for months.
To James, the bizarre blog posts also suggested another, more relatable story: Ling seemed like someone with a deep passion for filmmaking who felt he’d been denied the success his talents deserved.
With his apparent links to old Hollywood, and history as an overlooked outsider artist, Lord Sydney’s story seemed like a perfect pop culture mystery for the comedians to uncover — either a forgotten genius descended from European royalty, or someone living in a dream world.
As podcasters and movie lovers, James and Toliopoulos specialised in this kind of low-stakes, high-weird detective work.
Parkinson was as close as they had ever come to actually confirming Ling existed — but there was something about his story they found unreliable.
And amid all the talk of whether Ling was real, the comedians knew something Parkinson didn’t: Sydney Ling was a Guinness World Record holder.
The truth behind the Guinness World Record
In the beginning, James and Toliopoulos believed it may be a fake record. James had found Lord Sydney in the film section of an old copy of Guinness World Records he unboxed while cleaning his childhood home:
Lex The Wonder Dog, 1973. A thriller of canine detection, was written, produced and directed by Sydney Ling when he was 13-years-old. He was the youngest ever director of a professionally-made feature length film.
For a certain type of millennial kid, like James, these books were a phenomenon — an iconic mix of indisputable facts and bizarre knowledge, a cross between an encyclopedia and the weird fringes of Wikipedia.
He had grown up with them as Christmas gifts that he pored over every year.
A Guinness World Record was something to be respected, and Ling seemed to have lived one of James’ dreams.
“I grew up in Newcastle. It felt a world away from being able to make movies. I’ve been using my distance from showbusiness as kind of an excuse for why I didn’t do anything in my life,” James said.
“Sydney grew up, from what I understand, in the Netherlands. That’s just as far away from Hollywood.
“And yet he did it at 13 — he made a movie, he made it in this book. He’s proof that you can do it. You can go out there, you can live your dream. I just wanted to speak to him and ask him what it felt like.”
But James and Toliopoulos couldn’t find any evidence of Lex the Wonderdog existing, besides what was printed in the Guinness book. If the film was a masterpiece, it seemed long since lost.
At first, Ling himself proved just as elusive. The only biographical information they had was from a handful of those mid-2000s Blogspot pages, all written in the third person and wistful for the old Ibiza days.
They held information on Ling’s childhood, featuring lots of home photos, and more outlandish records: youngest photographer (age five); youngest physical trainer (age seven); youngest bullfighter; the youngest public relations and communications wizard.
He had worked as a flamenco guitarist, and got his lordship either from being a Belgian-French count, or from an English noble on his deathbed.
And there were more links to the art world, like photos of Lord Sydney with Elton John and Leonardo DiCaprio, and a list of credits in the 80s and 90s European B-movie scene.
The best leads the comedians had were a slew of articles scanned from what looked like Hollywood trade press magazines handed out at the Cannes Film Festival in the mid-90s.
Each one was a glowing write-up of Lord Sydney, praising him for his work with industry heavyweights, and tabloid accounts of his phone calls with movie stars.
James and Toliopoulos interviewed every international movie critic they could think of to verify the articles, and found no-one with information.
Legendary Australian film critic David Stratton, who had been going to Cannes regularly since the 1980s, said he hadn’t heard of Lord Sydney or even any of the journalists attached to the articles.
The comedians strongly suspected they were promotional material written by Lord Sydney himself, with cryptic sentences that praised him as, for example, “the undisputed and unquestioned master of concepts”.
Stratton offered a plausible origin story. With so many films screening every day at Cannes, it was common behaviour for filmmakers — especially unknown ones — to try different stunts and tactics to draw attention to their work.
Stratton suggested it was possible the magazines were paid for and distributed at venues by Lord Sydney himself.
“Everybody does it. If you want to get attention, you’ve got to do something,” Stratton said.
Later, James learned of another Lord Ling masterstroke of self-publicity at Cannes: hiring an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike to sit with him at outdoor tables during the festival, hoping to catch the eye of influential people who might think he had famous friends.
After all these interviews, he hadn’t seen a single frame of any movies Ling had been involved in, or found anyone connected to him.
It was possible that Stratton and the others were too mainstream to know the cult European cinema that Ling inhabited.
The comedians’ first breakthrough into that world came after they reached out to their contacts in the underground film area, trying to find a copy of anything Ling had worked on.
And in searching for a canine detective film that might not exist, they found one that probably shouldn’t exist: Shadows of Blood.
Written, produced and directed by Lord Sydney
Shadows of Blood may have a claim to being one of the strangest films ever made.
A grisly ode to the mean streets of 1980s Holland, the micro-budget horror film looks as though it was shot directly onto a heavily-degraded VHS tape.
Clearly, Ling poured every inch of himself into this one-hour-10-minute feature, as he is credited as writer, producer and director. He even performed the title theme song.
The plot, as best as it can be understood, follows two escaped serial killer “super sadists” (played by Barry Fleming and Paul Naschy) on the run as they move around Amsterdam, strangling pretty much everyone they meet — often in broad daylight as pedestrians walk by, disinterested.
It features a bearded mystical flute player. It ends with a police chief asking herself, “Maybe it’s better this way, who knows?” as a super sadist who has murdered at least 10 people walk slowly away from her to freedom.
And there are long stretches of maniacal laughter from Naschy, a cult legend known as the “Spanish Lon Chaney” for making beloved B- and C-grade European horror classics, like The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman.
For Toliopoulos, the shaky camerawork and gonzo enthusiasm of Shadows of Blood was a nostalgic reminder of the first movies he made with his friends at film school.
The film’s call sheet led them to Eva van Heijningen, a Dutch actress and puppeteer who plays one of the many victims.
She told the pair that Ling offered to be her agent when they were introduced in 1987 and that he cast her in Shadows of Blood as her first film role.
“The only thing I remember is that he said I have to be killed by a Spanish werewolf,” van Heijningen said of Ling’s pitch to her.
“And I thought ‘That’s nice.’ But then [when we shot the film] he was not a werewolf at all, he was a normal man.”
The film was either a test run to help with Ling’s side gig as a casting agent, or a genuine attempt at a feature film — the details of this remain disputed.
In any case, van Heijningen spent about a year with him as her agent. She said the only time he asked her for money was for a fee to include her headshot and profile in a catalogue of actors represented by Ling, a portfolio she never saw.
Still, she said Ling did secure her some work in a Japanese production that was filming in Holland.
In contrast to Parkinson, who was charmed by Ling in Paris, van Heijningen told the comedians that, for all his boasting, Ling was shy and soft-spoken.
“I never saw a sprinkling in his eye, or laughing,” she said. “He never looks at you and he talks with a soft voice, which is good because then you listen.
Eva had since lost touch with Ling, but she did give the comedians some contacts in the European film world who might know his whereabouts.
And that was where their investigation started to open up, taking them towards the Dutch B-movie film scene of the 90s.
Inside the European B-movie scene
“I’m going to spill some gory details here. I’m sorry, but it was just too funny,” Dutch film producer Jan Doense told Cam and Alexei from Europe.
Back in the early-90s, Doense was co-producer on the low-budget film State of Mind, in which “a couple falls in the hands of a female psychopath”, according to its IMDb synopsis.
During pre-production, Doense kept hearing of “the amazing Sydney Ling,” a fabulous casting agent who dazzled the Belgian producer in charge of the project.
Ling was brought onto the film after he promised to secure the talents of actor John Phillip Law — known for playing the Blind Angel in Barbarella and the lead in the Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
Doense said he was “disappointed” by Ling’s unwashed appearance when they first met at a hotel in Amsterdam to sign Law’s contract.
“We proceeded to do the contracts and he offered me, like, literally one sheet of paper, which basically said: ‘John Phillip Law’s looking forward to working with you. Please sign here and pay $10,000 to Sydney Ling.’
“I didn’t know much about contracts at the time, but I thought: ‘This is a pretty flimsy contract.'”
Doense stalled by claiming he had to get legal advice from the film company’s in-house lawyer before signing the contract. The in-house counsel had recently signed off on a project with several international actors.
“I asked him: ‘Is this normal?'” Doense explained.
“So he showed me the contract with [British actor] Peter O’Toole, which was literally as thick as a telephone book. And he’s like: ‘No, that’s not normal. Don’t sign it.'”
In the meantime, Lord Sydney kept finding excuses for why the crew could not speak with John Phillip Law, and the deal fell through.
With the film just a few weeks away from shooting, they needed an actor. Doense remembered that at their first meeting in Amsterdam, Ling had shown him the portfolio of actors he represented — filled, mostly, with the lesser-known siblings of famous people.
Among them were Chris Mitchum, brother of Robert Mitchum, and Don Hannah, brother of 80s starlet Darryl Hannah.
In the end, Ling provided the film with three actors for the price of one: Hannah, horror great Paul Naschy, and US actor Fred Williamson.
By the time the production began shooting in Belgium, Doense knew he was dealing with a strange character. On his first day, Ling showed up on set complaining about his charming hotel on a narrow street in the centre of Brussels, claiming it “was not Sydney Ling-style”.
By this stage, Don Hannah was on set and Doense had to know: was Sydney Ling his European agent?
“And Don said, ‘No, no, of course not. But if he can get me a nice job, he is,'” Doense recalled.
“Paul Naschy was kind of the same — anyone who could offer him a job was his agent, basically.
“And so Sydney Ling collected those photographs with biographies on the back, he carried that book around and showed it to whoever was in need of actors and told them he represented them.
“He did not represent them officially, but he did know them.
“And he was able to make it work.”
Learning his craft on State of Mind
It was clear, Doense said, that Lord Sydney was interested in learning the craft of film-making, and wanted to be involved creatively, to the point that he was once kicked off the set for interfering by standing behind the camera whispering lines to the lead actors.
“And in that respect, I must say that he was helpful,” Doense said. “We had a lot of fun with Sydney.”
He also brought a friend, Bill Harper — whose big claim to fame was that he was an extra on Gone with the Wind — to the set for impromptu tours, where Ling acted as if he was the producer.
“[Bill Harper] would always be having dinner with us. And I was like, ‘Where does this guy come from and how did this happen?'” Doense said.
On set, Harper and Ling somehow sweet-talked Paul Naschy into starring in an ambitious project: a sequel to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu they claimed they were going to shoot in Paris.
When he reunited with Naschy years later, Doense asked what happened with the project.
“He said it was a nightmare,” Doense recalled. “Somehow these two guys … had talked Paul into becoming a co-producer.
“Paul was going to provide the raw [film] stock. He had come to Paris from Spain carrying a shitload of film cans in his car.
“And once he had delivered the canisters, it sounded like he became a prisoner. He said he was put in an apartment where there was only a filthy mattress and he stayed there for like two weeks, and nothing happened.
“And then he just went back home, because the film was not happening. But somehow the film stock had disappeared.”
‘A legend in his own mind’
In the years after State of Mind wrapped, Doense learned more about how Ling conducted himself.
He seemed one of those characters who are so common in showbusiness — someone with ambition who wills themself to success through self-promotion and embellishment, who promises the entire world, but then can only deliver Daryl Hannah’s only brother, Don.
“I think somehow he sort of lost it, in a way, and became a legend in his own mind,” Doense said of Ling’s penchant for fantasy.
“Sometimes I run into him in Amsterdam. It’s always friendly — he’s definitely a nice guy. He’s a bit of a crook … but I would say he’s a charming crook.”
A group of Dutch artists, Doense said, had been so intrigued by their encounters with Lord Sydney over the years that they met to discuss making a documentary about him.
Some of them were among those who were contacting James and Toliopoulos to share their stories about Ling.
They compared his persona to a method actor, and said he had a talent for telling creative industry hotshots everything they wanted to hear.
One called him a “wayward genius, and wayward is stressed”.
Another, who said he had been in the movie business since 1982, described Ling as “the most remarkable subject I’ve ever met.”
A European documentary filmmaker remarked:
But none of these people had any contact details for Ling. Some hadn’t seen him for a decade or more.
And then, after months of emailing defunct blog accounts and chasing contacts from Amsterdam to Paris to the Ibiza coast, the comedians received an email from an account they had never seen before.
“Dear Cameron, you’ve been looking for me,” the email began.
It was signed: “Lord Sydney.”
Meeting the amazing Sydney Ling
When Cam and Alexei finally reached Lord Sydney Ling, he was holed up in a house in the Sierra Bernia, a mountain range on the Spanish mainland not far from Ibiza.
Raised in Ibiza’s harbour district, Ling said he took his lordship from his father’s side. His dad made his wealth from the boating business, and later owned hotels and restaurants.
But, he told the comedians, their relationship was strained.
“My father was much too busy, far too busy to spend time on me,” Ling said.
Ling told James his family were French, Italian, Dutch, German and Spanish, and so he was brought up between several countries.
He claimed he once spoke 14 languages, but has since lost a few and is back down to nine.
His connections to the art world came from early 60s Ibiza, the place where all the living legends, the actors, the painters, the alcoholics, the interesting people from around the world came to play.
As a boy, Ling said he crossed the island running the errands of these greats: ordering taxis, introducing them to local bank managers to open accounts.
At nine years old, he said, he was eating lunch every day with Orson Welles.
“I was brought up between painters, between actors, between writers, between cultures, between the rich and the famous, between all the big families in the world. They all came to Ibiza and they trusted me because I was a little clever boy.
“It was an amazing place. It was my best school in life.”
Lord Sydney said he got his start in the film industry via making documentaries of the local bullfights.
Though he insisted he was “not a namedropper”, Ling dropped plenty of famous names throughout his interview: Salvador Dali, Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Charlie Chaplin, the king of Morocco, the Rothschilds.
But what James really wanted to hear about was Ling’s status as a Guinness World Record-holder.
Finding Lex the Wonderdog
Ling confirmed he had indeed shot Lex the Wonderdog as a 13-year-old when he acquired some 16mm film.
Without the guts to approach any of Ibiza’s movie stars, Ling cast his grandmother alongside him, in a story about a crime-solving dog that helps track down some stolen jewellery.
“So it’s not really a sexy story, but I did what I could,” Ling said. “I even [worked] without a screenplay, it was just based upon how I thought it should be.”
Ling claimed it was a friend’s idea to contact Guinness and claim the record. He even helped prepare an envelope for Guinness with stills from the movie and a poster.
In other words, Guinness had never seen the film to confirm the veracity of their record. Ling downplayed its importance anyway.
“Let’s put it this way, I was never looking for a record, never, ever in my life,” he told James.
“I never wanted to be in the Guinness World Records because I didn’t think it was interesting.”
The ABC reached out to the Guinness media team, but they declined to comment for this story, except to say that they no longer keep records from the 2005 edition.
Whatever the case, it seemed the film would remain a lost masterpiece: Ling says the only copy of Lex the Wonderdog was stolen from his car outside the Madrid office of a famous Spanish film producer.
By the end of their call, after hours of talking with Ling, James and Toliopoulos still were unsure of what was fact and what was part of his fabulist mystique.
James said he was fascinated by people like Lord Sydney because they live their art.
In his own way, Ling did what it takes to make it in showbiz: craft a persona interesting enough that people will buy movie tickets and read the gossip columns.
“Sydney Ling has lived as this creative persona for like 50 years and has no intention of ever dropping it,” James said.
“He emailed me after our first interview. It was very brief, I think all it said was, ‘You know that there is more than one Sydney Ling. I just answered the questions that you asked, I hope you’re satisfied.
“He was kind of letting us know, in his own way, that there was more to him than what he gives us.”
What was for sure, James said, was that Lord Sydney may have been the most entertaining person that he had ever had a conversation with.
For his part, Ling seemed notably disappointed when the comedians’ interview came to an end. And he had some parting words of inspiration for James.
“And when I wake up in the morning it’s like: another day is another year.
“That’s why I’m 7,000 years old, for God’s sake. And I always tell the truth.”