The BBC has drawn up a "must keep" list of comedians and entertainers to stop star names being poached as competition between channels becomes ever more intense.
The comedy duo French and Saunders and the Have I Got News For You? host, Angus Deayton, are on the surprisingly small list of entertainers on exclusive deals.
Further towards the middle of the road, the comedian Jim Davidson, the presenter Dale Winton and Roy Clarke, the writer of Last of the Summer Wine and Keeping Up Appearances, have also been tied to exclusive contracts.
The corporation claims publicly to be taking a very relaxed attitude to its stars going to ITV or Sky for more money. And some, such as the comedian Harry Enfield, now with Sky, have privately told corporation bosses that they will return.
But the use of exclusive contracts shows there are some artists the corporation sees as epitomising the BBC and does not want to lose at any price. These artists are in effect being paid retainers as well as being rewarded for the work they do.
Jon Plowman, the BBC's head of comedy entertainment, said yesterday: "We are doing what we can to say, 'We think you are great here and we have got enough work for you'.
"There is a press perception that you try to own people, which is not correct. One would never think that about actors. But there are artists whom the public does associate with the BBC."
Greg Dyke, the BBC's director general, is known to be keen to stop the run of defections from the BBC, which has seen names from Des Lynam to Frank Skinner leaving for pastures new. Mr Dyke has said he wants to put more money into programming. He is unlikely to oppose additional funds being ploughed into exclusivity deals to keep the most popular names with the BBC.
Determined to show it still leads the way in comedy, the BBC took the opportunity in Montreux last night at the annual TV comedy festival to parade stars including Paul Whitehouse and Steve Coogan, who are making new series.
And Mr Plowman confirmed that the Absolutely Fabulous team were shooting a new series, Mirrorball, in which they play different roles. Jennifer Saunders will play an ageing dancer, Joanna Lumley an ageing singer and Julia Sawalha plays Saunders' sister. The project is set in the world of West End musicals, exploring the possibility of a musical of Angela's Ashes.
Other comic highlights include the Goodness Gracious Me team going to India to mine the comic potential of British Asians going back to their roots.
Paul Whitehouse is making a sitcom called Happiness in which he plays a bitter middle-aged man who is the voice of a successful cartoon character but has no personal fame.
Steve Coogan has formed a new company with fellow comedian Henry Normal, and the BBC has negotiated a two-year deal with them. One of the first programmes will see Coogan playing an architect in a new comedy drama series. The corporation also announced a new series of the fly-on-the-wall documentary spoof People Like Us, written by John Morton.
But while the BBC had a strong menu to display, Channel 4's head of entertainment, Kevin Lygo, said yesterday the corporation was trying to poach some of his stars including Ali G and Graham Norton.
Earlier in the weekend Yorkshire Television's comedy chief, David Reynolds, revealing that he had lured the Del Boy actor David Jason and Only Fools and Horses writer John Sullivan, had declared that the BBC was "careless" in looking after its top talent and had treated them badly.
That provoked an acerbic response yesterday from the BBC's controller of entertainment, Paul Jackson. He said: "I thank David Reynolds for his tip on talent management. But it is different, David, when you have only one star to look after in your entire canon. That is why we have seven shows in competition in Montreux, and ITV have only one."
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