The U.K.’s hottest year on record may have considerably dented summer box office business in Blighty but a fast start to the year and meaty winter perfs from Bond and Borat have helped keep U.K. takings on track to match 2005’s solid showing, no mean feat considering the U.K. was one of the few European territories to perform well in 2005.

As of Dec. 10, takings are level-pegging with 2005 and bookers’ hopes are high that WB’s CGI pic “Happy Feet,” UIP’s romantic comedy “The Holiday,” Sony’s actioner “Casino Royale,” Fox’s fantasy “Eragon” and BVI’s thriller “Deja Vu” can go close to matching December 2005 trade which was spearheaded by “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

This year got off to a flying start thanks chiefly to the strong showings from Academy Award contenders. The January openings of Fox’s “Brokeback Mountain” ($19.8 million final cume), BVI’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” ($14 million), UIP’s “Jarhead” ($10.6 million) and the February bow of “Walk the Line” ($19.9 million) got the 2006 box office ball rolling nicely.

But summer was hit hard by stiflingly hot weather and the under-performance of CGI pics “Cars” (BVI) and “Over the Hedge” (UIP). The poor perfs by the two CGI pics saw U.K. bookers significantly downgrade their expectations for other CGI pics, such as UIP’s “Barnyard” and BVI’s “The Wild,” which were released later in the year.

The latest CGI release to fail to set exhibs’ pulses racing is “Flushed Away” — particularly disappointing given the involvement of U.K.-based Aardman Animations.

Summer was not all doom and gloom at the box office. Shrugging off mediocre reviews, BVI’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” opened July 7 and did whammo biz with a cume of $103.3 million, 2006’s No.1 B.O. perf.

Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” also rode roughshod over poor reviews when it bowed May 19, pulling in $59.8 million over the warmer months. The Tom Hanks-starrer benefited from the media frenzy that surrounded the Dan Brown plagiarism court case at London’s High Court.

After an alarming post-summer slide, November proved a bumper month at the U.K. box office with takings up 14% on the same month in 2005. The dramatic upturn was driven by outstanding performances by Sony’s gritty actioner “Casino Royale” and Fox’s outrageous laffer “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond opened huge and has now banked an impressive $82.5 million, well clear of previous Bond franchise best performer “Die Another Day” in 2002, which finished up with $69.6 million. Bookers forecast a $98 million final cume for “Casino Royale,” which is expected to play well over the Christmas holiday season and into January.

Fuelled by strong reviews and massive media buzz, Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle “Borat” opened Nov. 3 and has notched almost $46 million, the fifth best total of the year.

It was not just Bond and Borat who found receptive auds on home turf.

Lower-budget, critically acclaimed Brit pics have punched above their weight. With a running cume of $15 million, Stephen Frears’ awards season contender “The Queen” is the 23rd best performer in the U.K. this year, ahead of big-budget Hollywood productions such as UIP’s “Miami Vice.” Ken Loach’s Cannes Film Fest hit “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” reaped $7.5 million, thanks primarily to massive support in Ireland. Fox’s stage adaptation of “The History Boys” bowed in mid-October and scored a perfectly respectable $7.8 million.

Other critic’s favorites, such as Andrea Arnold’s arresting directorial debut “Red Road,” have performed well from a limited release.

However, a slew of productions picked up or made by U.S. studios have failed in the U.K. this year. Warner managed a so-so $4.3 million with “Alien Autopsy,” Fox a blah $4 million with “Confetti” and UIP a truly terrible $1.7 million with “Sixty Six,” after spending over $3.5 million on marketing.

This year had been a bumper year for Bollywood cinema in the U.K. with four pics — “Fanaa,” “Don,” “Kabhi alvida naa kehna” and “Dhoom 2” — having passed the £1 million ($1.97 million) benchmark. Leading Bolly-wood helmer Karan Johar’s third feature “Kabhi alvida naa kehna” has led the charge with a gross of just over $4 million, the second best performing foreign-language pic released in the U.K. this year, trailing only Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” ($5.4 million.)

U.K. bookers attribute the success of Bollywood pics in the U.K. to the strong fare and the exhibition commu-nity’s increased understanding of the core-audience — non-resident Indians.

Although “Volver”was the top foreign-language pic, it was the perf of another foreign-language pic that has proved the surprise hit of the year. Operating as canny counterprogramming to the studio heavyweights, Spanish-Mexican co-production “Pan’s Labyrinth” has banked $2.2 million for indie distrib Optimum Releasing, their best result of 2006.

The magical realist drama from writer-director Guillermo del Toro has thrilled bookers. “For such a difficult watch, it has proved remarkably commercial,” said one.

Once again, comedy worked well in the U.K. It wasn’t just Borat luring Brit auds. Fox’s fashion comedy “The Devil Wears Prada” replicated its stylish U.S. showing with a 10th-best $27.3 million at the British box office. Other laffers to succeed were two UIP releases — “You, Me & Dupree” ($15.9 million) and “The Break-Up” ($20.2 million) — and Sony’s Adam Sandler comedy “Click” ($15.5 mil-lion).

Alongside the disappointing CGI results, some of the biggest flops this year were remakes. Fox’s “The Omen” and WB’s “Poseidon” both failed to live up to modest pre-release expectations.