BBC retains Little Britain duo with golden handcuffs deal

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Matt Lucas and David Walliams have joined an elite league of entertainers to sign a golden-handcuffs deal with the BBC.

The brains behind Little Britain have entered into an exclusive three-year deal to make comedy programmes for the BBC, starting with two Christmas specials of their hit comedy series.

Lucas and Walliams are also developing a new sketch show for autumn 2007, which will feature some familiar faces from Little Britain, and is likely to be shown on BBC1 on Saturday nights.

In the wake of recent criticism over the high sums paid to talent and executives, the BBC refused to comment on how much the three-year deal with Walliams and Lucas was worth.

But unlike Jonathan Ross, who recently opted to stay at the BBC in return for £18m over three years after rival broadcasters offered him more, there was no bidding war for the Little Britain duo.

Peter Fincham, the controller of BBC1, said: "We're entering into a three-year, exclusive contract with Matt Lucas and David Walliams. "They were clear that the BBC was the right place for them to be. It hasn't been a shootout at OK Corral."

Unveiling BBC1's new autumn schedule, Mr Fincham also announced that Panorama was to be restored to a prime-time slot, seven years after it was controversially moved to Sunday nights. However, Mr Fincham faced criticism for cutting the show's length from 45 minutes to half an hour to fit it into its new slot at 8.30pm on Mondays.

From January 2007, Panorama will be scheduled to run directly after EastEnders, inheriting double the audience it currently gets from the Ten O'Clock News in its current slot at 10.15pm on Sunday nights.

Panorama will run for 48 weeks a year, with an additional four hour-long specials, bringing the total number of programmes to 52 in contrast to just 38 shows a year at present.

Other new BBC1 shows unveiled reflected Mr Fincham's intention when he joined the BBC to focus on original drama and comedy. The British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili is writing and appearing in his own BBC1 stand-up and sketch show, while The Royle Family, written by Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, returns for a one-hour special.

Mr Fincham has also commissioned five one-off comedy dramas. Jennifer Saunders has written and stars in Jam and Jerusalem, about a church ladies' guild in Devon, also featuring Dawn French, Sue Johnston and Joanna Lumley.

In Berry's Way, Lenny Henry plays a recently divorced fortysomething with a dry-cleaning business who takes an Open University course in English literature.

BBC1 hopes to repeat the success of Andrew Davies' adaptation of Bleak House with two new period dramas: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, with Toby Stephens as the brooding Mr Rochester and Ruth Wilson as the heroine, and Robin Hood, starring the newcomer Jonas Armstrong.

Colin Firth, Anne-Marie Duff, David Oyelowo and Robert Carlyle star in London, Dominic Savage's powerful new drama about social inequality, which was commissioned to mark the 40th anniversary of Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home.

Paul Abbot's production company, Tightrope, has made The Innocence Project, about a group of law students at the fictional East Manchester University, who attempt to solve long forgotten cases.

In The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, Jane Horrocks plays a supermarket manager who rises to become Prime Minister.